How exams reflect life

June 14, 1996

It seems to be agreed that traditional exams, whatever their failings, are at least one of the more objective forms of assessment (THES, June 7). Much criticism is based on the idea that they are "unfair" because they are "stressful".

This is, in fact, the whole point. If we visit a professional for advice, or a skilled tradesman - whether doctor, lawyer, car mechanic, builder or whatever - we expect to outline our problem and that fairly quickly he/she will come up with a sensible diagnosis and some constructive proposals for solving the problem. We are unimpressed if our consultant requires three weeks to revise before venturing an answer.

If I were flying to Hong Kong and the plane developed a fault over Europe, I would be unimpressed if the pilot decided to press on to Asia with a dead engine because he had not revised approach paths to Rome recently.

It has always been the role of universities to educate and train graduates for entry to the professions.

The range of professions we serve has widened, but the principle remains the same. In the real world, our graduates will be faced with exactly the situation of responding, under time pressure and without notice, by analysing a problem, mentally locating relevant information and offering at least potential routes to a solution long before he/she needs to get involved in team work, or any activity remotely resembling coursework.

It is about time we stopped this pernicious nonsense, and began to train our students to develop one of the most vital skills they must possess if they wish to succeed in their future careers.

David Abel

Reader in applied hydrobiology Universtiy of Sunderland

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