Exams: Time for a change

The debate around the use of examinations for arts based subjects pops up this time every year then duly disappears just as the damned things themselves do; and this is half the problem.

A sustained argument on the waste of time that are arts and humanities examinations can never be had due to the general attitude of exams as a necessary evil, with many just glad to see them pass and to never have to think of them again.

But the idea of remembering sound bites, clumsily repeating them while constructing an argument that barely convinces you, is absurd and inconsistent with the method and structure of examination that occurs through the year, through essays, where there is a chance to develop an argument, research something heavily, tweak and modify an argument so it is something actually worth reading (you may even begin to enjoy it). But given that expectations are naturally lower in exams, due to the time pressures imposed (which seems to wholeheartedly defeat the objective) every exam answer is relative garbage.

Everyone’s is, it’s not your best work – how many exam papers have been quoted and referenced throughout history? I can’t imagine our greatest contributors to philosophy or literature ever producing their best work under time constraint, silence, boredom and isolation. Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ would have been a small stroll, and Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ nothing more than a short story of modest inheritance.

Exams are about as useful as placing a number of objects on a table, closing your eyes and getting a friend to move them a bit and then trying to guess what has changed. Surely a more sensible solution would be that of a set of essays around exam time in which you can fully research and write on a topic, allowing you to show off your writing ability in a more natural and useful manner. In what profession are you going to be required to remember bits of information which are then not available to you and then required to repeat it all in a timescale of a few hours?

For those who say exam time is the only time they truly learn because they have to remember: You are either lazy or wrong. Don’t try and convince anyone you’re learning grand theories and ideas in a two week cramming revision block pre-exams. It’s an exercise in sound bite accumulation, useful only for making unnecessary pretentious remarks or obstreperous observations to use in passing conversation in an attempt to prove your degree is ‘worth it’ – an attempt that will at most tease a polite nod before everyone hopes for a minor event to occur in order to divert attention.

To justify exams through the importance of ‘writing under pressure’ is such a vacuous and vague statement and raises the question of what ‘pressure’ is to be applied. Why not remove the time limit and just hand out BB guns to invigilators to sporadically shoot at random students? Why not? It’s just writing under pressure.

If you’re looking to produce intelligent and thoughtful academics that care and think deeply about their subject in order to then produce fine work of depth and intelligence then the method of testing doesn’t match up with the required outcome and it should change. I could go on, but times up.


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