It’s exam week once again, so I took some time to reflect on the learning experience at INSEAD. At least in Singapore, we as a society have been grappling with the role of exams in education and how they impact learning. One aspect that has impressed me about education at INSEAD is how exams are used to maximise learning, so I’ve detailed some factors that make this work.

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1. Institute a prisoner’s dilemma to motivate studying.

At INSEAD, courses are graded relative to peers, based on standard deviations from the mean (i.e. Z-scores). That means that it is technically possible for everyone to get an absolute score of 0 and pass, but this never happens given human nature. In fact, the week before the exams, students are greatly inspired by classmates to study just by seeing them revising in the library or fretting over concepts in tutorials; studiousness has never been more infectious.

The Z-score also prevents one from unproductively reading too much into the outcome. It is possible to do well on absolute terms, but get a relatively low Z-score because your classmates are all very brilliant. (Indeed, the MBA office’s email on exam results was the first time I saw students being congratulated just for having an above-average score.)

Another important point to note is that the Z-score is not the same as a forced bell curve in that there is no fixed number of students for each grade, and it is possible for no one to fail. As such, it does not have as much of the demotivating effect of a bell curve with quotas.

Yet, on its own, this Z-score policy could breed a toxic environment in which cut-throat competition prevails and students miss out on the benefits of learning from each other. However, the next factor prevents this from happening.

2. Make grades matter enough for learning, but not enough to hamper it.

INSEAD’s non-disclosure policy means that employers won’t know your GPA. The only hint is if you are in the top 10% of your class and receive a distinction. This matters because it liberates students to take courses in new areas which they find challenging, alongside classmates who may be experts in the subject. It thereby nurtures an inclusive environment for the proverbial poet and quant to learn together, in line with the spirit of diversity. Another effect is that despite the Z-score system, the predominant attitude towards learning has very much been collaborative in nature, at least in my experience.

Moreover, there is nonetheless great motivation to study because there is a minimum GPA requirement to be in good academic standing, which affects one’s ability to graduate. Grades also affect one’s chances of successfully getting into some campus exchange programmes. Finally, failing a course also means having to retake it, which would be a scheduling nightmare given how packed and intense our entire academic year already is.

3. Seize every opportunity to teach, even during exams, and even after exams.

In a first, I found myself learning from the exam questions while sitting for papers at INSEAD. Many questions started with a concept from class, then took us through a new case study one step at a time  explaining new concepts to us, then expecting us to merge those explanations with concepts we learned in class to solve the question. If you know your class material well, you should technically be able to solve it after some thought, yet you would also have learned something new by the end of it.

The rationale behind including these difficult questions was to create a spread of results, since Z-scores are calculated by standard variation. This would avoid inadvertently failing half the class; if an exam was too simple, variation would be small, so even one careless mistake by a student might result in a failing grade. Nonetheless, learning new concepts made the process of taking the exams refreshingly engaging and meaningful despite the pressure – the perfect illustration of how it is also the process, not only the outcome, that matters.

Finally, after grades were released, most instructors took pains to comment on our results and learning outcomes, some explaining in detail how we could have improved. This is crucial to learning, since any mistaken understanding might become permanent if we don’t receive any feedback. Yet, this practice should not be taken for granted as there are still many educational institutions that don’t return final papers or comment on mistakes after grading.

Overall, these policies and practices have convinced me of the school’s value for learning and given me much food for thought on the role of exams in education.