The BBC has found that children today will sit an average of 70 exams before even leaving school. And after a couple of years at university, it becomes hard to remember a time when you didn’t spend the Christmas or Easter holidays revising.

But are exams really the best method of assessment? Arguably not. The problem is that they facilitate a highly instrumental approach to education. Rather than learning consistently and broadly, exams encourage a targeted and short-term method. They cater for those who have very little passion for their degree. Annoyingly it is often these students, many of whom who do not go to seminars and lectures, who do well at exams. They ‘play the game’.

Third-year Politics student and Course Representative James Potts argues that exams should be combined with a range of different assessments: “Exams are important. But coursework requires more research. Presentations are another way of getting students to engage…an ideal module should be assessed by all three methods”.

“We have stopped caring about the subject”.

Students are not being incentivised to learn consistently and regularly because exams are neither consistent nor regular. But would students want a constant – albeit less important – stream of exams?

Vanessa Pupavac, a lecturer in International Relations at UoN, argues no. She sees a wider culture of instrumentalism of which exams are merely symptomatic: “This is about more than just exams. There has been a denigration of education. A culture of testing and continual assessment is cultivated by schools”.

She believes that exams are just a manifestation of today’s goal-orientated approach: “I had a friend who was interviewed to be a history teacher, and they didn’t actually ask her any questions about history. We have stopped caring about the subject”.

“All modules must teach students ‘transferable skills’. This is a broader cultural crisis”.

Moreover, many exams only cover a fraction of material taught during a module. Students can simply pick a few topics and revise them, usually guessing which questions will come up from past papers or suggestive lecture slides. Revealing an interesting insight into the psyche of today’s students, one anonymous student said: “I don’t see the point of going to lectures every week. I don’t get assessed on it, so why turn up?”

Coursework can also encourage a lazy approach. Particularly for those with essay-dominated modules, the point of going to seminars and lectures not relevant to your chosen question evaporates. Lecturers and seminar tutors are confronted by people who are there not to study, but to tick the register before hurrying home to work on essays.

“In-depth knowledge about Plato or Kant is not what employers are looking for.”

Exams and coursework might be the best of a bad bunch. Other suggestions would be to have weekly tests or oral exams, which would reward those who do learn regularly and those who take a more all-encompassing approach to learning, but would be a logistical nightmare and would still be open to the instrumental, goal-oriented criticism.

Pupavac is sceptical about the potential for change, seeing the issue as a much broader one: “Education is now about targets. Subjects are subordinated to broader economic and social goals. For example, all modules must teach students ‘transferable skills’. This is a broader cultural crisis”.

The problem is that education has become geared towards employability. From a young age we are encouraged to do everything we can to enhance our chances of getting a job. Sadly, in-depth knowledge about Plato or Kant is not what employers are looking for. Exams are a reflection, rather than a cause, of this ‘do what you have to’ culture.

Rob Moher 

@RobertMoher

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1 Comment

  1. Former Nottingham Politics Student
    February 15, 2014 at 17:29 — Reply

    A Masters in Nottingham’s Politics Department can cost £6,500. Can students be blamed for adopting an instrumental and consumerist approach to their education?

    I can confirm that employers do not give a damn about Habermas or Kant or indeed any of the ivory tower knowledge the Department taught me.

    It does beg the question why are people paying for such degrees especially given the rise in undergraduate fees? Is academia just a massive Enron style Ponzi scheme that is about to unravel?

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