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Why Cambridge International Education Cannot Be “Self-Assessed” By Scholars

Posted on March 11, 2020 by Hugo Mendes

Cambridge Assessment is the brand name of the 850 year-old Cambridge University’s International Education Programme.  This brand has been providing exams to primary and high schools across 170 countries, in 70 subjects and from grades 1 to 13, for over 160 years.

Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) rebranded itself in November 2017 as Cambridge International Assessment Education (CAIE). This was to emphasize its focus on helping improve the whole education they provide to their students by means of assessment. A common misconception is that the Cambridge International curriculum is a lot more advanced than other curricula but this is not the case. It’s the rigorous and demanding assessment standards that really distinguish Cambridge International from other education systems.


The Cambridge Pathway is described below:

Appropriately Challenging?

Although home-schooling families have an opportunity to design their children’s learning programme according to their individual strengths and preferences, you will notice that there are still age ranges for guidance. “Private candidates” may enjoy unparalleled flexibility when they take their final assessments. However,  individual students, may be guided by children’s typical developmental age stages when deciding to write their final exams.

Since there are different ways that govern curricular practice, this raises questions about the “Top-Down” approach to Cambridge International Education, whereby International GCSE subject matter is being taught to children as young as 8 or 9 years of age. One must bear in mind psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s  Zones of Proximal Development[1] when teaching children: as most children are innately curious, but are not naturally good thinkers, we must think about what is just beyond what children can know and can do, when teaching them.

Teaching To The Test?

There’s also a difference between Cambridge International Education’s “Assessment for Learning”[2] and “Teaching to the Test”. Although assessment should drive pedagogy, there’s a difference between reverse-engineering a test, as opposed to teaching higher order thinking skills, in the process of imparting conceptual and factual knowledge.

Techniques such as effective questioning help to gauge what individuals have learnt during a lesson, generating evidence of learning by means of continuous assessment. As cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham writes in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”: “one needs to think of to-be-learned material as answers, and then we need to take the time necessary to explain to students the typical questions.”[3]

“Most Of The Time What We Do Is What We Do Most Of The Time”

Cambridge is renowned for its rigorous assessment precisely because it demands application of cognitive skills, rather than mere rote memorization and then “regurgitation” thereof.

But thinking is full of effort, sometimes slow and uncertain. There are no short cuts to learning how to think. The only “short cut”  is in memorizing facts and automatizing recall, to speed up routine processing. However complex problem-solving techniques require both pedagogical training and perseverance, as well as cognitive ability. This ability has been shown by neuroscientific research to develop as the brain grows through school-going ages.

As a result “thinking out the box” is actually very difficult.  It requires a habit of mind which can only be acquired when age-appropriate i.e. when the brain has sufficiently evolved those abilities. By “problem-solving”, neuroscientists mean cognitive work that succeeds. But thinking well (critical thinking processes) requires facts stored in long-term memory, so the early stages of education (when facts are memorised) are essential to laying the foundations for problem-solving later. Hence, after acquiring basic literacy, knowledge becomes essential to reading comprehension, and not just decoding skills.

“Memory Is The Residue Of Thought”

The students with the best general knowledge and factual recall will tend to perform best on reasoning and reading comprehension tests. This is because they can devote more of their mental resources to figuring out the solution to the problem since they understood context, connections between facts, and seen analogous problems before.  They can therefore focus on deeper knowledge beyond the surface structure of the problem.

But memory is not a product of what you want to remember or of what your preferences are; it’s a product of what you think about [4]and great thinkers display incredible persistence and a high mental exhaustion threshold. This ability takes guidance from experienced teachers; and also takes time to build up the mental resilience to persevere in uncertainty.

Understanding Is Remembering In Disguise

Concrete familiarity provides context to make new meanings, as our brains are wired to avoid abstraction. So rote knowledge is not the problem: it’s shallow knowledge, which limits our ability to generalise, as we don’t recognise the underlying structure of the problem to be solved.

So can one simply rehearse exam papers ad nauseum and then sit exams successfully?

Students looks for analogous problems in rehearsing exams, but this doesn’t guarantee exam success, unless the student can map the exam problem to a prior one with a deep structure.

This Is What Cambridge Calls “Assessment For Learning” (AFL)

Whereas some educational systems, in particular the American testing services, see standardized testing as a necessary evil, Cambridge International Education regards testing as a teaching tool!

Students should use this evidence of learning from assessments to decide about how to spend their independent study time. For instance, the guided learning hours recommended by Cambridge International for all of their International GCSE subjects is 130 hours per course. But this does not include the independent practice and private study time, which is dependent on the students’ background and prior exposure to the subject matter.[5]

CambriLearn Assessments (assignments and tests) have implicit messages about what is important to understand and know for the final exams. But all reasoning ability is constrained by the limitations of our working memory (consciousness). Hence  practicing with past assessments mitigates this limitation by reducing the cognitive load on examination candidates.

We must also distinguish between experience and practice. The former is due to prolonged experience; the latter is based upon a desire to seek improvement. And research is unequivocal that continued and spaced (not crammed) practice improves retention.[6] Hence, CambriLearn doesn’t permit our students to batch-submit assignments. They need to be submitted one at a time and the usual response time of 7 working days is observed for giving detailed feedback.

We need to treat failure as a natural and necessary part of learning so that learners learn the art of perseverance. And we also must not underestimate the necessity for meta-cognitive skill, i.e. study skills should not be taken for granted. It is as important to know how to learn, as it is to spend time committing facts to memory and to practising exam-type questions.

Not All Learners Are Good Exam Takers

The problem with the high-stakes exam scenario, where the final assessment counts 100% of the ultimate grade (even though unlimited retakes are possible with the Cambridge Assessment educational system), is that some candidates are not good exam-takers. They may succumb to significantly heightened exam anxiety, for instance, and then access arrangements may be required, for them to demonstrate more of their true knowledge and problem-solving ability.[7]
For all these reasons, rich subject matter knowledge is important, but pedagogical content knowledge i.e. the ability to teach how to think and problem-solve commonly encountered problems is even more critical.

This is why what I term self-assessing - downloading CIE question papers and model answers, and self-marking, is misleadingly economical when studying Cambridge International. In fact, even tutors with the subject matter knowledge may not be able to teach how to think about the subject, and to therefore problem-solve unfamiliar (i.e. unseen) exam problems.

Hence, even in taking the Standard package (the more affordable subscription) in CambriLearn, the most valuable part of our service is the independent assessment feedback. Here our professionally-trained teachers’ (continuous exam-standard written) feedback aims to counsel exam preparedness and help the student judge their own exam readiness.

And so it is my contention, that the most efficient and cost-effective way to master curricular concepts and to acquire the higher order thinking skills for which Cambridge International Education is so prized, is to develop those cognitive skills under guidance of a professional, trained in the Cambridge Assessment standards, and able to impart them.

[2] “Assessment for Learning”

[3] “Why Don’t Students Like School” by Daniel T. Willingham, p. 210

[4] “Why Don’t Students Like School” by Daniel T. Willingham, p.42

[6] “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel T. Willingham. P. 192-193