Reading time: 4min.

by Ceri Clark

The relevance of formal exams

Now we’ve all sat them, a big hall or a classroom with individual desks, as if the space between us somehow made it impossible to see the person next to us, silence with the invigilator giving us the same speech that, by the time our third or fourth exam came round, we all knew off by heart anyway. Then those dreaded words “you may now begin” as if the whole experience couldn’t get any more stressful or uncomfortable.

Personally I’ve always felt that the pressure and nature of exams had, for most people, doomed them to fail before it had even started. The build-up and atmosphere causing many to stress out to the point where they couldn’t think of anything anyway and the idea that essentially all any of it really was, was a high pressure memory test which determined your future, like we’d never be able to refer to books or the internet at any point in our future, we were just expected to know everything off by heart, word for word.

In my AS Level history exam they’d given us a source book, which was essentially a collection of references and pages from various texts that we had to use for the exam, the catch was that during the actual exam, we’d have none of it. We were expected to remember vast quotes and the exact source of these quotes off by heart for the essays. Now for me, this was an absolute nightmare. Many a night I spent up reading and re-reading the sources, highlighting, sticky noting, writing and copy writing, look cover write checking. But to no avail, my talents were and have never been in memory tests and if it hadn’t been for the style of the exam, the essay structures, and the ‘write pretty much everything you know about the subject’ style of the questions, I wouldn’t have even managed the D I scraped. Sadly, due to my hopes of becoming a forensic scientist I’d chosen all exam courses, and I wasn’t so lucky for the others. This was, coincidentally where I discovered my passion for sociology and all things people related so I suppose, in a way, it worked out for the best.

However, even with my love and enthusiasm for the subject, at degree level exams are still almost unavoidable. And it still appears they are my downfall. In my first year I had three exams, it didn’t seem that much and with hindsight I’m rather glad they were unseen (for reasons I shall explain shortly) but my revision still essentially comprised of, reading and re-reading text books, going over notes, making essay plans and revising topics, because yet again it would all be down to how much I could remember. Luckily the good thing about essays is that it’s very easy to bullshit most of your way through and make vague references to people who may have, at some point written about the subject thus gaining me a good enough grade to pass.

This year however the exams were slightly different, and this is where the hindsight came from, I had two seen exams, and whilst this may seem better, and it did to me to start, in many ways it was much worse. Although I knew the questions I was going to be facing, this meant, in some way I was going to have to actually remember who wrote what and what the details of the reference were. For someone who struggles even to remember what happened that morning let alone references in detail, this was going to suck or more, I was going to suck.

Overall my belief that exams are in any way the best or only way to assess a person’s ability to comprehend any given subject is that that’s complete rubbish. I personally feel that I am best when assessed through essays with the ability to reference sources and websites and the like, which is what I’d be doing in real life anyway, ensuring I would be actually talking about the right thing and even learning. Of course this doesn’t even really seem to get to the base of exams or even teaching in general. I understand that there are certain things that are definite for example maths equations and certain science facts but the same can’t really be said of English or Sociology opinions, these things aren’t necessarily things that can be or even should be taught as certainties. Should we not instead be nurturing individuals to think for themselves or come up with their own ideas? Instead of teaching absolutes perhaps we should teach arguing techniques and persuasion methods, ways in which people can structure what they believe into coherent arguments much like we do in a dissertation or a journal.