Are exams rubbish?

Student in exam

Ex-teacher and TSR staffer Pete Langley (aka The Learn Ranger) pushes through the smoke and mirrors to question the entire basis of our exam system.

Exams may or may not have worked for you so far but if you take the time to sit back and think about it, they look pretty strange in 2019. 

The basic format of exams is remarkably unchanged over 100 or more years. Yet the world has moved on beyond recognition. Is the format of exams so successful that, like the wheel, that they’ll be here forever? Or are they stuck in a time-warp, failing to meet the needs of today’s students, employers, universities and wider society?

How relevant are exam skills in 2019?

Let's have a look at what you need for success in exams.

1. The ability to write very quickly in longhand 

This honestly isn’t something most people are asked to do in the course of their jobs (many journalists, for example, know shorthand). In fact the only context they’re ever likely to be asked for these skills again is in other exams. Is fast longhand writing in the age of computers really an important skill?

Why should students who physically write slowly be penalised in their exams? 

2. A strong short-term memory 

Ask any employer the skills they are looking for in young people and they’re likely to list qualities like flexibility, teamwork, initiative, independence and creativity. They’re less likely to mention a good short-term memory.

Yet this is the very ability that is extremely important for exam success. You cram day and night to retain the key facts, theories and concepts that get you the grade you need. 

Then you can forget it all the next day. Pointless.

With so much information readily available, there is surely less need to retain it in your head.

3. Exam technique 

Does having a huge amount of knowledge about a subject mean top grades? Would leading academics achieve the top grades their knowledge deserves? Quite possibly not.

They would write too much, run out of time and discuss issues in ways that move away from and beyond the mark scheme. A ‘C’ maybe? 

To be successful, students need to follow all the rules of exam technique – providing exactly what is required in the mark scheme, timing every answer perfectly in proportion to its marks and using the exact content that is identified in the specification.

So top grades are as much about exam technique as subject knowledge. It seems that exams are testing the ability to be really good at… exams. 

And that the most desirable qualities and skills for life and work are being untested and ignored in most exams.

Do students always get what they deserve in exams?

No. You have one shot at an exam. Screw it up and that’s that. Yes, you can retake, but you will probably have to wait a whole year, and it isn’t easy or practical.

It’s just too easy to underachieve in exams – misinterpret one question, mistime one answer, feel ill – all these unfortunate events can mean you do way worse than you should. And they’re nothing to do with ability.

Are papers marked fairly?

Then there’s the question of whether your paper will be marked accurately. Getting every mark right in every exam is obviously an impossible task. And in many arts, humanities and social science subjects Ofqual have admitted that there is actually no such thing as a ‘correct’ mark anyway.

Mark schemes are open to equally valid interpretation by examiners so minor differences in marking are acceptable. 

If you get a generous marker, lucky you. If you get a meaner marker, things might not be so good.

So how well do exams set us up for the world in the 21st century and provide an accurate judge of performance and potential in a subject? Not very well.

Whatever you think of exams, they don’t define you

Successful or not, exams don't define you. They don't make you a nicer or better person. They don't make your relationships any more successful and they don’t make you happy in the long term.

Lots of you reading this will have done very well in exams and that is something to be very proud of. The system has worked for you, opened doors for the future and given you a sense of self-worth.

If the exam system hasn't worked so well for you, don't worry – there’s thousands of successful people exactly like you who’ve taken different routes to success.

As we’ve seen, the most in-demand qualities and skills in 2019 are not actually assessed in most exams. Grasp these and you’ll be successful, regardless of your exam results.

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