Exams and Things

Having been in the unfortunate position of sitting three exams in the last month, I know exactly where I stand in the debate on their effectiveness.  They’re absolutely pointless, and nothing more than a test of short-term memory.

Each one has been a source of misery to me.  I’ve never been very good at exams.  My short-term memory isn’t brilliant, and I’ve always found it hard to recall facts.  I’m the kind of person that is hopeless at pub-quizzes, but can remember poems, extracts from novels, and lines from Shakespeare.  Cramming for a test is on my list of things I hate to do, especially if what I’m trying to learn is also something that I either don’t fully understand, or have nothing to apply it to.  Add to that the fact that I’m also stressed from being so far out of my intellectual comfort zone, and frankly I’ll be surprised if I’ve done more than just scrape through.  To add insult to injury, the exam I thought I should have found the ‘easiest’ was the one that I’ve probably performed worst in.

I need time to think, read, research, reflect, write and re-write.  Coursework suits me.  I like coursework.  Really, what IS the point of exams?

I’m not sure where the fixation with final exams comes from.  is it just a hang-over from the public school system?  There was a discussion on the radio a few days ago in which it was suggested that it’s partly to do with the ‘school leaving certificate’ that was a thing when young people could leave school at 16 or, prior to that, 14.  I know other cultures – notably the far East – relies heavily on examinations to assess students’ learning.  I also understand why Gove wanted to reduce the level of coursework in subjects like English Language and Literature.  I don’t doubt that there were lots of students getting help from their parents, but in the long term, does this really matter?  Parents may have inflated their kids’ grades, but I’m willing to bet that eventually they’d reach a point where they couldn’t help anymore, or their little darling was at university and beyond their reach.  For everyone, there comes a point where they have to prove themselves with no back-up, and then the cracks would undoubtedly have become visible.  And anyway, the coursework only ever amounted to 20% of the overall marks, so it was never a big deal.

I can’t think of a single subject where a terminal exam is either useful, or a proper measure of someone’s ability.  In the real world, everyone looks things up if they need to, and sometimes even when they don’t.  Doctors, nurses, surgeons, vets, mechanics, all learn and consolidate their knowledge through practice, and even then have to consult their manuals from time to time.

Now the age for leaving full-time education has been raised to eighteen, there seems even less reason to rely on the kind of assessment where you can’t even have your text books or whatever with you.  Even allowing for the kind of stupid gaming of the exams system that some schools have engaged in, British students still get a rich and well-rounded education.  Making judgements of knowledge gained, and educational ‘worth’, based on a series of memory tests just seems like the very worst way of finishing that journey.


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