The Evils of Exams

I can’t think of anything in my young life which provides more stress, anxiety and general unhappiness than the most dreaded part of the education system: Exams.  Your entire course builds up to a crucial and make-or-break few hours, where your success or failure as a student is measured.  It’s a horrible situation to be in.  Gladly, today I finished my last exam of this semester of uni, and I couldn’t be happier.

Exams are old hat to me now at this stage in my career of learning.  The first exams I sat were in 3rd year of secondary; although being easy, fall-back General level Maths exams – there was still a pressure even then.  We were doing exams for a level below which we were able, and everybody (including the teacher) treated it as such.  Still, going into a hall and being coerced into silence and forced to complete questions creates a situation that is so artificial and intimidating that even easy questions became real head-scratchers.

It becomes even worse in exams where you have little chance of passing.  I took Advanced Higher Maths in my 6th year at the behest of my maths teacher.  I hadn’t done very well at the Higher exam, and rather than retaking the course and applying myself better when it came to revision and the exam, I was urged to take the Advanced Higher course.  A C-grade at Advanced Higher would be worth much more than any grade I’d get at Higher level the second time around, I was told.  That’s all very well, and was probably good advice, but I came nowhere near to getting a passing C grade in that course.  It was a relentless, mind-boggling onslaught of letters, numbers and concepts that were far beyond my comprehension.  The very phrase: “Second Order Non-Homogenous Differential Equations” makes me sick with confusion.  When faced with these terms in an exam, where there is no possibility of any rescue, it makes time stop in a way that begs scientific explanation.

I know why exams are part of education.  They are a relatively fair (academically speaking) way of randomly testing people’s knowledge of a subject, I get that.  But they shouldn’t ever be the sole determinant of how well someone can use what they’ve learned on a course.  Never in any sort of workplace or out-of-education situation will somebody be forced to instantly spout all or random parts of what they know about something.  There will always be an opportunity to research, to some extent, what is asked of them; or even to give a simple “I don’t know” and move on.  Exams don’t give that flexibility to take a more natural and free way of doing things.

I suppose as you go further in education that exams become slightly easier.  Aside from the general traits of becoming accustomed to the feeling of sitting in an exam hall and the ways of revising properly, the actual exams themselves have become more accessible.  Whether this is because of the courses available in later years of secondary and in university or just progressive education methods, I can’t tell.  Subjects now, at university, generally allow you to answer several from a selection of questions – whilst ignoring some others.  This means you can ignore topics that you aren’t as well-equipped to describe or explain, and gives you a chance to show your ability in other ways.  I like having that option in exams.  Something else that is good about university courses is that exams generally amount to a maximum of sixty percent of an overall grade, the rest coming from in course assessment.  This is far better in my opinion.  Being able to go into an exam knowing that you have a safety net to balance out a poor performance on the day gives some peace of mind that’s comforting in the long wait before results.  There is a new pressure that comes in having to do well in coursework, but it pales in comparison to an exam that your course hinges on completely.

The worst part about the evils of exams is that there’s no real alternative.  Pure coursework courses can be too easy, and knowing a subject can come second to putting in massive amounts of time working with sources to feign a good grasp of it in tasks.  Exams might be here to stay, but hopefully in two and a half years’ time I’ll have been able to leave them behind.  It’s something that always helps me through even the most trying of exams: they have to end at some point.  Thankfully they have for now.

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