In 1845, American educational reformer Horace Mann introduced the first standardised exam for children.1 The goal was to discover better inclusive teaching methods to meet the varied needs of his students, and while a lot has changed in education since that time, this ambition remains strong.
Traditional exams are clearly crucial for modern education, but where do academic competitions fit into the picture? And how do they compare with the standardised exams of today?
Here are the key differences between the two.
1. Competitions are motivational; exams are for assessing skills
The biggest difference between academic competitions and exams is their purpose. Competitions are often run by educational institutions as a way to motivate their students, challenge them, and provide opportunities to show their abilities, which can drive them onto greater things. Exams are a form or summative assessment that are used to assess skills, as well as highlight students’ learning gaps to teachers who then try to fill them (though competitions can help with this too).
The motivational power of competition can be seen in sports across the world, from quiet school fields to packed stadiums. But while children can tap into their naturally competitive natures by playing football, soccer, cricket and other sports at school, there are fewer opportunities for them to do the same thing for English, maths, science and other subjects they may excel at. That’s the beauty of academic competitions – they give children opportunities to compete in a similar way to sports, which can fill them with energy and encourage them to strive towards their best. Exams can also be motivational for students, but their primary purpose is to assess rather than motivate.
2. Exams are mandatory; competitions are optional
For schools, exams are essentially a mandatory exercise for improving children’s education. Competitions can also help with this, providing teachers with supplementary results data that helps them to build better pictures of their students’ needs, but they are usually optional and organised at the discretion of the school.
3. Competitions are (usually) directed towards high-achievers; exams are for all skill levels
Competitions can motivate every child to succeed regardless of their skill level, but despite this, they are often directed towards high-achieving, academic children. This is unfortunate because children who struggle in traditional classroom environments may thrive in competitions and discover hidden talents that can shape their careers. This was certainly the case for Adam Ritchie, an unruly student who achieved the maximum score for ICAS Science and became a leading developer for the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.
By comparison, exams are for every single student regardless of their skill level.
4. Exams are based on the curriculum; competitions don’t need to be
For an exam to pinpoint knowledge gaps for children, it needs to test the standardised learning outcomes in the curriculum, and so assessment creators use this as a base when creating each question.
When creating questions for academic competitions, it makes sense for assessment creators to use it as a guide (because that’s what children learn in school), but they aren’t obliged to tie each question to specific outcomes, which gives them much more stylistic freedom. ICAS, for example, tests children with scenario-based questions which encourage them to think outside the box and reach the answers in unique, innovative ways. This naturally makes them more challenging, which is why winning a medal in an academic competition like ICAS can be so rewarding for children, especially when their hard work is celebrated by their classmates.
5. Competitions and exams can both provide valuable insights
Though academic competitions are usually run as a way to challenge and engage children, they are still a form of assessment that can yield valuable results data. This is especially true if the competition is completed by large groups of children, where teachers can compare their students’ performance against their classmates, year level, and even national averages if the competition is big enough (ICAS has been completed by 10 million+ students since its inception).
When triangulating competition results with the data received from traditional exams, teachers are able to build a vivid picture of their students’ learning needs. The technology used for online competitions and exams is enabling teachers to build a holistic picture of every student.
Academic competitions vs. traditional exams summary
|Academic competitions||Traditional exams|
|Main purpose is to be motivational, challenging, and fun||Main purpose is to assess children’s skills, so that teachers know what to focus on|
|Usually directed towards high-achievers, though valuable for children of all skill levels||Set for every child regardless of skill level|
|Not based on the curriculum (but may be influenced by it)||Based on the curriculum|
|Provides valuable learning insights for students||Provides valuable learning insights for students|
Brent has been working in the education space for over 10 years, initially as a primary school teacher before moving into education technology. He now splits his time between working on the technology that shapes classrooms, and lecturing/tutoring future teachers at university.
- Carole J. Gallagher , 2003, Reconciling a Tradition of Testing with a New Learning Paradigm, Educational Psychology Review