Pointless tedium - don't you just love it?

May 28, 2004

Neither lecturers nor students enjoy exams, so why do we have them? Perhaps we have a twisted sadomasochistic streak, writes Nathan Abrams.

I have an exam paper for you. Three questions. Three hours.

Please read them carefully. Begin.

1. Why do we have written exams?

2. Where did they come from?

3. What is the point of them?

I'm told that exams were introduced here in the late 19th century to regulate entry into the newly professionalised civil service and that they were copied from the practice of the Chinese imperial system.

Whatever their origins, there are many problems with the exams method, and it is time to reconsider their place within the assessment strategy.

The problems with exams begin early on. The lecturer is supposed to draw up an exam paper within weeks of beginning teaching. If this is a course that a teacher has been trotting out for decades, this is relatively simple.

However, if it is a new course, then this is a tricky task, especially as most institutions come with pre-designed moulds into which lecturers have to squeeze their course. Are the exam questions to be topic-based (such as the Second World War) or thematic (conflict)? How many questions and in how long? The struggle to change institutional mindsets in this respect is monumental.

Once a lecturer has come up with the model, there are a series of hoops to jump through. Will one's colleagues on the examinations board approve them? Then there are the idiosyncrasies of the external examiner to get past: will they be sent back for review with a nit-picking Post-It Note attached? And there is no second-guessing or understanding the logic behind their decisions, either.

Once the lecturer has reached this stage, there is then the problem of checking over the exam papers. It's like being back at school or even sitting in the exam room.

It has long bemused me that in a module where assessment is weighted equally between coursework and exams, far more time is devoted to ensuring consistency and quality in the exams than in the coursework. Indeed, in many courses, students are encouraged to devise their own questions. Why then are exams considered too important to be left up to the students?

Then there is the tedious task of invigilating (if you're unlucky enough to have drawn the short straw) and marking the exams. I hate marking exams.

I'm sure everyone does. How can they not? Reading answers that don't answer the questions in rushed, scrawled writing resembling the proverbial spider crawling in ink is not my idea of fun. And it seems absurd that we insist on making students type essays but write exams. The problems associated with bringing computers into examinations can be overcome.

And then students are subject to all kinds of pressures depending on the lottery of when their exams fall. Health and medical problems may intervene; what about issues of mental as well as physical health, stress, panic and so on? In the age of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Senda), these are issues that we should not be treating lightly.

We then laugh at some of the outcomes, namely "hilarious" cock-ups, spoonerisms, misremembered facts and dates. For example, a student of mine wrote about the "Ku Klutz Klan". Do we do all this for the pathetic laugh we gain at the end?

And are exams the most efficient method of checking learning? Exams mean that some lucky students can forgo almost an entire semester of work by second-guessing the lecturer and still obtain a good grade. Is it right that an entire degree is examined? While, fortunately, this practice is changing, some institutions make a token gesture towards coursework. I worked at a place where oral assessment constituted a paltry 5 per cent of the overall grade; the four essays counted for nothing as the rest was examined.

Why do we even have exams in the first place? Examinations are a necessary evil, it is said. They are a mock-real-life performance by which relevant life skills are assessed. They ensure a quality education. However, there is a view growing among some teachers and educational theorists that "quality" education stands opposed to "exam-oriented education".

Why do we put ourselves through a process that we do not like and know that students aren't fond of either? Perhaps the answer is simply that we lecturers have a sordid and twisted sadomasochistic streak.

Pens down.

Nathan Abrams is a lecturer in modern US history at Southampton University.

Have you encountered an exam howler or students who have got their facts in a twist? Contact Paul Hill on 0207 782 3116 or email him at paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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