You have to feel some sympathy for students at this time of year – yes, even Arts & Humanities students. For it’s that time of year that everyone loves to hate, when students are crammed into little silent rooms with a rickety square table and a big clock counting down to The End. On the other side of a face-down sheet of paper are the questions that will largely determine their final year’s average.
You also have to feel some sympathy for the lecturers most years, though many will be shaking metaphorical fists at their refusal to mark coursework or exam scripts as part of their ongoing pay dispute. Disregarding this for a moment, though, stop to consider that lecturers are obliged first to invigilate these tedious examinations and then to sit through them again, marking the students’ scripts as quickly as possible with the Students’ Union breathing down their neck to turn results around ever faster and faster.
This is just a brief description of what is by now a normal and socially-expected form of examination. I think that this normality, however, obscures from our view the fact that it is, quite frankly, completely mad.
Just look at the recurring images in the picture painted above – speed, haste, countdowns, cramming. How is it right that exam markers should be expected to spend mere seconds checking off each question in a script, even if they’re essay-length? How can we justify an exam system, moreover, that expects students to demonstrate their best abilities in a pressured, unrealistic situation in which you’re done for if the question you revised doesn’t come up or comes up in a difficult form? And more than this, how can we condone a system of assessment which only ever tests a student’s ability to answer three or four questions about a topic that they should have spent months studying? Something is rotten in exam-land. And it’s the exams.
Nobody seems willing to admit this, of course. Universities will claim that examination-hall conditions reflect the conditions of a person’s future employment, giving a person a set amount of time to marshal the disparate information contained in their head in order to produce a coherent, convincing answer. Bollocks, I say. What kind of an employer sits their workers in a room one or two days a year, tells them to solve a problem using only the information that they can reasonably fit into their brain, and gives them an hour-and-a-half to finish the lot. Oh, and tells them not to talk to anyone else in the company about it, of course.
Exams, in fact, are the very worst way to test students that could possibly be imagined. The exam-hall student is victim to all the vagaries of fate, from poor sleep the night before to inability to handle effectively the stresses of these situations. That doesn’t mean they’re bad students – I know plenty of people who were great at reading for their seminars and produced first-class essays, but who couldn’t get it down on paper in exams. These people are being discriminated against by a system that favours a certain kind of person – and moreover, the kind of person that employers probably don’t want to see churned out of universities – the last-minute crammer, who learns three topics out of thirty and then dresses it all up in fancy verbiage that conceals the fact they’ve really done no reading all semester.
An uncomfortable admission, perhaps, but one that needs to be made – this is the attitude of most students towards their exams, and it is one that the distorted exam system encourages. I did it. My housemates did it. There was absolutely no reason not to. But did it give us a firm understanding of Middle Eastern history, or English kingship, or European political systems? Of course not.
I suppose one could argue that the current examination system is perversely useful in rewarding those that learn how to play the system, jump through hoops and do the minimum of effort. I think that justification would make my hypothetical employer frown. Surely what that employer wants when he or she sets a task is for a diligent employee to know that they should seek out as much relevant information as possible, communicate with colleagues for advice and resources, and then bring the lot together in a convincing solution that makes reference to its sources in order to demonstrate that it’s not entirely made-up. There’ll be a time limit, of course, and creativity will be encouraged, but there’s already a university examination system that includes both those things whilst presenting a more satisfying analogue to the modern world. That system is coursework.
Think about it. A coursework essay demands that you read widely and representatively, organise your material, and interpret it creatively but within reason to produce an original piece of work – to a time limit and a word count. A coursework presentation demands the same, but adds to that the criteria that you must communicate your ideas clearly and engagingly to an audience. It is immeasurably more valuable to a student than an unreal examination environment. Why do Oxbridge students get such good results? Not just from the teaching – but also the requirement that they produce an essay every week, that they do their reading and they communicate their ideas to their tutor. They can’t hide at the back of the class like so many of us can.
So scrap exams, and focus on coursework which demands broad contextual reading and understanding, and where people’s grades aren’t determined by how they were feeling that morning or how they deal with sudden stress.
It’ll never work, of course. Students will hate it because it destroys the actually-quite-cushy examination-led culture of university, whereby you only really have to do a few weeks’ furious revision and examination per year and can go out on the lash for the rest. (One notable thing I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of students are aware that exams are rubbish and there are better alternatives, but they’re unwilling to do anything about it.) Staff will probably hate it because it’s probably a lot more and more sustained work. Regular coursework marking might really cut into some lecturers’ valuable research and paid-speaking time. It would probably also cost too much. But it would undoubtedly produce a better calibre of student.
When I say “boo” to exams, it’s for altogether different reasons to the majority of students. It’s time for the kind of exam system we deserve.