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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

Assignment Based Versus Unseen Exams, Better Or Just Different?

"If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here. I guarantee you that." - Michelle Obama

After investigating the different educational programs offered by international schools, parents often look into school assessment practices before choosing a school for their child. Modern-day parents have greater expectations for educational assessment than ever before. So what is the most effective way to measure student learning? Is it coursework or examination based assessment? Should school assessment focus on content-knowledge acquisition or students' ability to apply prior knowledge to new situations?

Katherine Beadle and Guy Cassarchis are both experts in international education. They are familiar with the various types of assessments conducted at international schools. Native to the UK, Katherine entered the field of education seventeen years ago. She taught in schools in London for eleven years. She was a principal of several established private schools before accepting her role as the school principal of Imperial International School. Having lived in Malaysia for six years, Katherine is well aware of the educational approaches in Malaysia.

An Australian native, Guy is a newly appointed principal of Peninsula International School. However, he is not new to Malaysia. He was the school principal and advisor for Masha International School. He also conducted workshops for teachers and students organized by the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE). Prior to this, he managed Grange School in Ikeja, Lagos, one of the top one hundred International Cambridge Schools in the world.

Many argued that students today are more suited for an assignment-based curriculum as compared with the traditional British unseen exams model. What are your thoughts, given that your experience extends to the various examination types?


Education comes in many forms, so are assessments. There are different types of assignments and assessment methods. Schools that keep up with the latest education development tend to focus on both. They recognized the importance of coursework assignments and exam based evaluation. Being a principal for a local international school that runs an IGCSE program in Malaysia, I realized that most parents still have the misconception that the IGCSE curriculum mainly focuses on exam based evaluation. The truth is it is really up to schools to decide the approaches to assessment for IG programme. Some schools focus on forty percent of exams and sixty percent of coursework. It is unwise to use test scores alone to measure a student's academic performance but overall comprehensive evaluation. Performance in exams does not necessary reflect a student's true abilities.

Katherine Beadle

Formative assessment has its strength, where students are being assessed using feedback based on the answers they have provided in exams. This helps improve student achievement and promote better learning outcomes. They learn to identify their strengths and weaknesses based on standardize test scores. On the contrary, assignment based evaluation provides opportunities for students to think critically, learn to ask better questions and a space for them to experiment with new knowledge and try new skills and ideas.


At Peninsula International School, we measure and assess students using test scores and coursework. The primary goal of education is to help students to expand their knowledge and understanding, including skills for the next stage of life. With fifty percent coursework assessments and fifty percent examinations, such approach is good for assessing the different learning styles of students fairly.

It is unfair to use test scores alone to evaluate a student’s performance. A more effective way to measure and report student progress is using exam results and coursework assignments. The challenge for educators is to create meaningful and effective assignments that can meet the needs of diverse learners in a classroom. Besides evaluating students’ knowledge and their ability to apply materials taught in a class, teachers should evaluate their communication and presentation skills as well. Do they look and sound confident during a presentation?

It is disturbing for me to see local high school students being divided into arts and science streams, and the later is often seen by many even local educators as more important subjects. They believe arts are meant for academically weaker students. This is an outdated educational practice because it gives the misconception that nothing is of value unless it is related to science and math. With this said, I believe students should be given the opportunity to choose their courses.

Given the differences in approach between IGCSE and The Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), which program you think best suit the local students and why?


First of all, I agreed with Guy. Some old practices remain in local schools and even universities. Students are still trained to memorize and reproduce facts from books instead of improving their problem-solving skills. Not having the right kind of skills can impact a child's development in the long run. There are schools that fail to recognize the advantages of public speaking. As for the tips of selecting the right educational program, I believe with the right help and careful research, it is possible for any parent to find a school that suits their children academic, social, and emotional needs.

Choosing the right school that provides the right kind of support can make a huge difference in a child’s life. Filter information and feedback gathered from various sources before committing to a school. With more and more international schools in Malaysia offering different teaching styles and school philosophies, the journey of getting the right school can be overwhelming. At the end of the day, it is all about finding a school that matches the child’s needs and learning styles, whether it is the VCE, IB or IGCSE. Only schools that apply the best assessment practices possible and know how to respond proactively to students’ needs can offer a child a better learning experience.


VCE measures students’ ability by how they perform in the classroom and test scores. To reward coursework points, students must finish their work in the classroom solely on their own without any help from their classmates or their subject teacher once the topic is being discussed thoroughly. This is the correct way to assess student understanding so that they can learn to take responsibility for their learning and become independent learners. We must teach our students the practical knowledge of how to evaluate their own performance and make progress. Sadly, some teachers are not aware that homework is not coursework. Homework is work that is done at home or outside the class, therefore homework marks should not be added toward the final grade.

Guy Cassarchis

Due to cultural factors, some schools expect teachers to provide “help” or “tips” to students so that they can score higher marks, this will definitely hinder students from cultivating constructive, effective decision-making skills. Students who are conditioned to rely on their teachers to provide answers will remain as passive participants and there is very little if any involvement of students during class time. Therefore, even if the students achieved good results, the results don't necessary reflect the students true abilities and the "big picture". In this case, teachers becomes a giver of information rather than a facilitator of learning. A good teacher helps students see the value of their ideas and that their ideas and opinions matter.

What is the impact of the current pandemic on the effectiveness of teaching and learning?


No doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly disrupted the school system. But we should not let the situation affect student learning. The school needs to make sure all teachers are ready and prepared to take on the challenges that await them. There are various ways a school can support their teachers in case of prolonged school closure. One way is to provide adequate training so that teachers can employ creative measures to make online learning more engaging. One of the challenges of distance learning is getting students to stay focused as they are easily distracted by social media. Another challenge is poor internet connection hinders online learning. Therefore, parental supervision is a must.


I agreed with Katherine. There are concerns about online learning; but that doesn’t mean we can’t find solutions for them. Online learning is about prioritizing what to teach. Successful online learning requires both teachers and parents to work together; to be as involved as possible in a virtual classroom. Knowledge is nothing by itself unless one can apply the knowledge learned in real life. In my view, a good teacher is someone who knows how to guide and direct students to learn for themselves, and not telling them what to do. Spoon feeding can potentially deskill students from developing the necessary skills to survive in the real world.

For younger students, the sudden leap into online learning has posed additional challenges. They may not be comfortable using online tools to receive lessons and complete assignments. In this case, parents need to monitor them closely and help them adapt to distance learning successfully including the submission of homework.. Parental engagement is required for online education, at least during the initial phase.

Published in Dreamic Educational Magazine 2021.

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