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Exam-Oriented Learning: A Supported Education Malpractice in Indonesia

Exam-Oriented Learning: 
A Supported Education Malpractice in Indonesia

As it marks its 75 years’ service, Indonesian National Education has been suffered from exam-oriented learning, a detrimental but supported educational malpractice. All stakeholders are supposed to use the national exam abolition a momentum to eradicate it.

The term malpractice is formed by the prefix "mal" (bad, wrong, ill, improper) and "practice" (action, performance, or operation handled according to the standards set in a profession). The prefix "mal" was adapted from the Latin word malus, or "evil." Thus, malpractice refers to the failure of a professional to provide proper services reprehensible ignorance or negligence or wrongful intent. Malpractice, which can occur in every profession, including medical, architecture, law, and education due to the use of wrong or improper procedures, expertise, or materials.  
Every malpractice has a negative and detrimental impact. It can even cause fatal effects. But society responds to different malpractices differently. Malpractices in the medical, pharmaceutical, architectural and law fields are often severely criticized, even heard in court. Malpractices in other fields are merely teased or pouted. Exam-oriented learning, however, is supported by a majority of its stakeholders.

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Exam in Education: an Objective or a Tool?
Universally, education refers to a planned effort to facilitate students with a holistic educational experience aiming to enable them to develop the values, attitudes, knowledge, and skills they need in their lives. Finland, well known for its high-quality education, stipulates that education aims to support the humanitarian growth of students, enable them to be ethically responsible members of the society and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need in life. In Indonesia, Law no. 20 of 2003, Article 3 states that the purpose of the national education is to develop students’ potential to be humans who believe in and fear of God the Almighty; have the noble character; become healthy, knowledgeable, capable, creative, and independent; and become democratic and responsible citizens.
Although these national education goals are formulated in different ways and emphasize on a few different aspects, they substantially refer to the relatively similar goal, i.e. to facilitate students to optimize the development of their potential or talents so that they become capable, knowledgeable and skilled people in life and at the same time become responsible citizens. Despite that relative similarity, educational practices in the two countries are very different. To achieve its educational goals, Finland focuses her educational activities on learning, not examinations. The country does not conduct national examinations for elementary school students. According to Henrickson, the students’ learning progress is evaluated by the teacher of each subject through formative assessment. The assessments, conducted through various methods, are not used only to find out student learning achievements following the learning objectives specified in the curriculum but also to identify the concepts or skills students find difficult to master so that teachers can adjust the techniques, media, and other academic support to help students overcome these difficulties. The only national exam carried out in Finland is the matriculation test held at the end of the general high school. Admission to higher education is based on the results of the matriculation and entrance test.
In contrast, students in Indonesia have to face a lot of exams, various including formative tests, quizzes, mid-terms tests, final-semester exams, and national exams (UN). The National Examination has been conducted since 1950, although it was carried out under different names, i.e., Final Examination (1950-1960), State Examination (1965-1972), School Examination (1972-1979), National Final Learning Evaluation (1980 -2000), National Final Examination (2001-2004), and the National Examination (2005-2019). In various regions, since 2014 the National Examination began was conducted through computers and called the Computer-Based National Examination. In addition to these formal exams above, various quizzes called “Cerdas Cermat” were also held in the form of local, national, and international level competitions.

Status of Exams in Learning
Should exams be avoided from education? Certainly, No! If they are used as a tool to achieve goals, exams can provide great benefits to education. They turn out to be a problem if they are made the ultimate objective of learning, like the way the national exam is treated in Indonesia. To explain the differences in examinations as a tool and as an objective in learning, Popham (2001) distinguishes two strategies of teaching: item-based and curriculum-based. The former views examinations as the ultimate goal of teaching, whereas the latter treats examinations as a means to achieve the aim.
The teachers implementing the item-based teaching strategies limit learning only to the parts (items) of subjects that might or usually appear on an exam. For example, when teaching the Tenses, an English teacher tries to identify the elements of tenses that normally included or are predicted to appear on the exam. Then she instructs her students to memorize the structures and rules of the formerly identified tenses elements and ask them to practice through drilling. Learning in such a way, students do not have the opportunity to practice using tenses as a means of real verbal and written communication.
The teachers who implement the curriculum-based teaching try to teach all topics or body of knowledge and skills in the subjects they teach based on the curriculum. When they teach Tenses, for instance, the learning activities involve conceptual understanding and the practices to use the concepts for creating sentences for communicating thoughts or feelings. Teachers with this approach use tests for two purposes. First, using exams as a diagnostic or formative test employed to identify what parts of the topic students have mastered and which parts are new. Having such information, the teachers know which part of the topic should be reviewed only (because they have been quite familiar to the students) and which parts need to be explained in detail (because they are new to the students). Second, using exams as a tool to find out students’ learning achievements on the topics that have been taught (summative test). Thus, curriculum-based teaching does not only prepare students to handle exams but also practice to use the learned knowledge and skills in daily life.

Exams as Malpractice in Indonesian education
Although the proponents of the national examination insist that it is needed to map the national education progress and quality, to a higher extent it has become a problem due to its "high-stakes" nature, i.e. it is made as a determinant of students’ future and the main benchmark for school quality. The national examination greatly affected the future of students because its results determine whether they could graduate from elementary, junior high, and senior high school and, at the same time, determine whether they will be accepted at the next level of education. As a result, the national examination is often so sacred that most teachers and parents will do "everything" to enable students to pass it. Unlike Finland, which uses exams as only one tool to make learning successful, Indonesia makes examinations an educational goal.
Because the national examination is a learning goal, many teachers intentionally focus on teaching only to prepare students for exams by implementing the item teaching strategy. In the classrooms, many teachers merely ask students to focus on memorizing and repeatedly drilling the questions related to the items that are predicted to be included in the national exam. A teacher of Bahasa Indonesia working in a senior high school in Jakarta once clarified this by stating that although the topics of essay writing and literary works appreciation exist in the curriculum, she did not teach them to students in-depth. Why? In addition to the fact that mastering essay writing and reading and appreciating literary works takes a long time, the national examination never includes questions requiring students to write an essay or appreciate a novel. This is supported by a Physics teacher teaching in high school I met in a scientific writing workshop. He admitted that his students were never been asked to write a report after having experimental activities in the physics laboratory. Instead, they were only told to fill in the student worksheets. He argued that the national examination never includes essay questions requiring students to write in paragraphs. Even in the final semester exams conducted by the school, essay questions can usually be answered with one or two sentences.
Because the exam is so scaring but important, some schools even "rule out" the subjects that will not be included in the national exam from the classes that will soon face it. Thus, a few months before taking the national exam, the classes will focus on learning the subjects included in the national exam only. Some schools even ask the students to attend “additional classes” in which they learn more strategies and practices to handle exam questions. To help their children prepare for the national exam, many parents are ready to spend a significant amount of additional cost to let their children have more practice in a tutoring institution.

The Negative Impact of Exam Oriented Learning
The impact of exam-oriented learning, as malpractice in the education sector, can be essentially disadvantageous, and even more detrimental than the malpractice in the medical field. Kirkpatrick & Zang (2011) reported that this malpractice can reduce many qualities that students need to succeed in and outside of the classroom, including imagination, creativity, and self-confidence. According to Travelers (2011, the view emphasizing the importance of exam scores as a benchmark for their ability will distort students’ learning motivation because they will take test results more important than learning as a process that involves and simultaneously develops analytical, critical, reflective and creative thinking skills. The view which focuses more on the extrinsic goals (such as test scores) and completion of studies (such as obtaining diplomas) can naturally undermine students’ intrinsic motivation, interest, and perseverance. In contrast, if students learn to intend to master knowledge and skills and are proud of the hard work and competencies they mastered, they will be increasingly able to learn independently and use more effective strategies.
One of the factual proofs we can use to portray the negative effects of this educational malpractice is the results of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies measuring the learning competencies of global students in the fields of reading, mathematics, and science. Indonesia started to join this program in 2009. Up to the latest survey in 2018, Indonesian student competencies have consistently ranked in the lowest 10. For instance, Indonesia was the 57th out of 65 countries in 2009, the 64th out of 65 countries in 2012, the 62nd out of 72 in 2015, and the 74th out of 79 in 2018. The scores achieved by Indonesian students in the three surveyed fields were also consistently below the average score of students from all surveyed countries.
Quality education produces quality graduates, i.e., those who can improve their welfare and actively contribute to their national development. Conversely, educational malpractice will produce graduates who are incompetent and unable to answer the growing challenges in life. The Willis Towers Watson survey from 2014 to 2017 revealed 80% of companies in Indonesia found it very difficult to find competent domestic tertiary graduates, although universities in Indonesia passed 250 thousand alumni every year. Besides, Indonesian education cannot yet help students to develop critical thinking skills. Research showed that 65% of Indonesians are easily incited by hoaxes or fake news, and this is one of the main causes of the social and political life ‘noise’.
If educational malpractice can cause a detrimental effect, why don't people sue it? There are two possible factors why society does not pay much attention to educational malpractice like exam-oriented learning. First, the public does not understand what is happening is malpractice or not. Second, the negative effects of educational malpractice are not immediately apparent. According to the ESRC (2014), the impact of educational practices will be apparent after around 25 years.

The discussion above shows that exam-oriented learning is educational malpractice and its consequences in Indonesian context is apparent in our life as a nation today. The awareness about the losses arising from this malpractice must have been one of the drivers for the Ministry of Education and Culture to abolish the national examination starting in 2021. The abolition of the national examination certainly needs to be accompanied by teachers’ readiness to implement curriculum-based teaching. In line with this, teachers should be empowered to apply a student-centered learning approach and consistently involve and develop thinking skills in learning activities. Thus, the lesson plan should be designed to include thinking concepts like Bloom's Taxonomy. By so doing, students will be no longer prepared only to practice doing exam questions but are also involved in the learning experiences that develop attitudes, knowledge, skills, and thinking skills. ***

What do you think of the education malpractice described in this article? Please write your views in the "comments" section below.

Author: Parlindungan Pardede (


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The emphasis on exam-oriented learning has become a growing concern in many educational systems worldwide. In Indonesia, this approach has led to a supported education malpractice that puts undue pressure on students, often leading to learning difficulties and even mental health issues. It is crucial for educators and policymakers to prioritize a more comprehensive and holistic approach to education that values critical thinking and problem-solving skills rather than rote memorization. For students struggling with exam-oriented learning, seeking professional help from educational experts, such as those at can provide valuable support and guidance to overcome these challenges and achieve academic success.


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