A rant on exams

This is undoubtedly a sign I am now a permanent resident of Grumpy Old Woman land, rather than just a frequent visitor – but I am fed up with people moaning about exams.

Not only do I hear these complaints from pupils at school, I also get them from fellow OU students. Maybe that’s why I’m reaching saturation point!

Now, before I go further, let me be clear. If you’ve just taken an exam, a degree of therapeutic whinging is probably to be expected, and may be part of peer-bonding, and a guard against appearing to be cocky or arrogant.  Also, there do exist exams where there genuinely is something to shout about – I sat one of those with the OU, and pushed a successful formal complaint through the “complaints and appeals” process, and I know one of my colleagues is keen to pursue a similar complaint about one of the papers his students have taken this year.

There are also exams that are badly set but not to the extent of justifying a formal complaint – those with too many marks resting on recall of a relatively minor part of the specification or those with questions in which people will typically get either full marks or zero with no gradations in between, for example.

But the most common complaints I hear are:  “It wasn’t like the previous papers/ the specimen paper”, “the bits I revised didn’t come up” and “The questions were so hard”.

My answer to that – what do you expect?

  • Exams are not meant to be exactly like previous exams with a number or a word changed here or there.
  • Exams are meant to test your understanding of the material you have studied, not how diligently you have practised past papers or how effectively you have memorised old markschemes.
  • Exams are not meant to allow you to revise selectively – unless there’s a specific intention that you choose particular options, they are meant to make you learn the whole of the specification.
  • It is perfectly legitimate  for an examination to require you to think. It is not just a memory test – you are expected to have a brain that can analyse, apply, evaluate, not just download the contents of your memory to the page
  • Exams should contain hard questions. They are a much more legitimate way to distinguish the top candidates from the rest than whether they can avoid trivial mistakes on easy questions.

Now I am happy to say that exam boards may well have been at fault in the past for setting papers that were a little too routine (and that applies even more to the OU, I am afraid – many courses have very repetitive exams indeed, which do indeed reward obsessive past paper practice above a thorough grasp of the material as a whole).  But they (exam boards) have been moving away  from this for a few years now, and it was always clear the new AS levels would not be like that. But still the expectation of it being like something they’ve seen before lingers on in students (and some teachers).

The other source of the complaints seems to be unrealistic (and in my view, unreasonable) expectations.

When I was at school, I was not a model pupil. There were some subjects I liked, and in which I completed my work diligently. There were others where I didn’t, and when it came to the end of the year exam, I was attempting a last minute revision effort. And there were some subjects I just wasn’t very good at (and I don’t think I put in anything like enough work to get better at them).  The same could undoubtedly be said of many pupils now.

But there is a key difference between now and then. If I hadn’t learnt a subject thoroughly, I didn’t expect a high grade. If I only revised certain areas, and the others came up – well, I was disappointed, but I never thought the fault was with the exam rather than me.  If I wasn’t good at a subject in the year,  I wasn’t surprised to find the exam difficult. Isn’t this obvious?  But time and time again, I see pupils who have got a C or D grade in their mock acting surprised that they couldn’t just walk in and ace the real thing. I see fellow students who really struggled to understand the material expecting that somehow they will get a first class result. Is it just me who finds this bizarre?  Do some people really believe that exam success is some sort of entitlement, irrespective of ability or industry?  We all know that performing well as an athlete requires you to have the talent and put the hours of training in – and that the less of the former you have, the more of the latter is needed.


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