Saturday, 3 December 2011

My thoughts on Exams

I want to talk about a subject that applies particularly to me, a 16 year old living in the UK, because I think this is a subject that undoubtedly requires attention. This is school examinations.
It's really easy to take one look at what I'm saying and think "He's a student, of course he thinks exams are rubbish, he's just complaining." If you're of that mindset, I won't try to convince you out of it, I'll just ask you to read the rest of this post.

I'm not really sure about the education system around the rest of the globe, but in England, we do GCSEs at our secondary schools (which are for students from 11-16.) General Certificates of Secondary Education. And of course, the hallmark of GCSEs as I'm sure goes for a lot of similar qualifications, is exams. My issue with them isn't just what they do, but what they don't do, and the kind of mindsets they encourage.

Think about this... why are we at school? I don't know about the rest, but I'm at school for the sake of education, to learn information that will be of use to me in later life. But when we take exams, we learn all of this information up to a certain point... then it is to be discarded after we've written it all out and forgotten, of no more use to us. Rarely do they ever encourage us to keep the information we learn for exams, it's just a matter of learning it for the exam, being able to write it down and show that you understand it at the time, and then it's done and dusted, you've got your qualification. You'll be able to put that down on a CV and said "I got an A* in my Spanish GCSE." You probably won't be able to remember how to ask for directions unless you're Spanish, speak it fluently or went on to study it anyway, but you can still say that you beat the examination and satisfy any employer looking for a hispanophone (Spanish speaker.)

It's not just about retention, either. A lot of exam prep is learning about exam technique, about how to write an exam itself. Sure, this can come in useful for later in life when you need to learn a specific set of criteria, and then apply them at a later date, but beyond that, this isn't a skill that's at all relevant to what you want to/are expected to learn. The whole rigour of exam testing, too - in large halls where you are silent, surrounded by stern invigilators, writing within a time limit - causes students to be nervous, and particularly the harder workers to get flustered and sometimes terrified by exams. It's done so the results are collected scientifically and fairly, so that the government et al. can look at the graphs and charts and tables and say "Okay, 67% of students are passing their Spanish GCSEs, should we continue to put money into this area?". It's also about the school. They can say "98% of our students pass their English GCSEs" to the government, and get more funding out of it. All of this is my own speculation, not based on fact, but it's why I imagine exams are conducted the way they are, and if I'm somewhere close to the truth, then I could see why they do it.

But this is no benefit to us, the focus of education. What exam results will tell any employer is whether you are a hard-worker, whether you can strive to achieve high results regardless of the reason, whether you're any good at memorisation, but it won't tell an employer if you actually know shit about Spanish, English, Business or Chemistry. It won't tell them that this means anything to you at all, the entire focus of GCSEs is getting the exams done and putting it all behind you so you can move on to the next qualification.

It's also about the kind of preparation exams encourage, and this is a crime many schools here are guilty of - learning by rote. I say a crime because in my opinion, it achieves so little! By rote-learning, I mean learning by repetition, e.g. saying the order of the elements in the periodic table over and over again so you commit them to memory, and can call upon them at any point. It works, and it works quickly, but it doesn't work efficiently, and I remember far better the things that I used particular memory techniques to commit to my head than anything I learned by rote. Sometimes, rote-learning is both important and the only method you really can use. For example, if you want to learn in a language how to conjugate verbs, unless you're an adept linguist, that's really something you can only rote-learn. But these are the exceptions. The majority of just about every subject has a wealth of material that can be learned in far more fascinating ways, that allow you to learn more effectively, and that are of more use to you.

I could go on forever about the flaws of examinations: they cater poorly for dyslexic/dyspraxic/dyscalculic students; their content is not always relevant to what you're learning; if a student is having an off-day then an exam will not be an accurate reflection of their abilities. But instead I'll point out a few good things about exams.

For one, as I mentioned before, they do show dedication and hard-work. However efficient/effective they may or may not be, they do require you to apply yourself to study for. And as I also mentioned before, they teach you to learn criteria that will be important - i.e. exam technique - and then apply them later on. And I'm out. I consider these small benefits in comparison to the flaws of examinations. Perhaps, one day, we'll see an improvement to this system.

And you know something? You know what I should be doing right now instead of writing a blog? Revising for my Chemistry mock...

1 comment:

  1. I think you make some valid points, Leo.

    Perhaps I could just temper those with some observations from the other side - from a person who has finished school and has been working for several years.

    First, about the relevance of the material taught in school.

    I knew in high school that I wanted a career in the sciences, so I took subjects I thought I'd need, like mathematics, physics, geography, and biology. And lo and behold, I ended up in a job requiring the skills I learned in these subject areas.

    Perhaps I was lucky to get one of those few jobs that requires skills learned in high school, or perhaps most jobs require high school skills. I'm not 100% sure, to be honest, and this is something that schools ought to be thinking about.

    Concerning exams themselves.

    Having to learn various skills and concepts well enough to use them in an exam situation helped me, at least to some extent, to permanently retain these skills.

    Probably what helped me most was the practice leading up to the exam rather than the exam itself, but if it weren't for the exam, I probably wouldn't have practiced.

    The question, then, is what other learning and assessment strategies are effective at producing long term skill acquisition. The education world is actually filled with good ideas: assessing students on a regular basis through informal questioning and take-home assignments, immersing students in real-life work situations, and so on.

    There are also many ideas for assessing students with various learning disabilities like dyslexia.

    The problem, as you correctly identified, is that the exam format is easy for the schools. But if more teachers (and their administrators) were willing to diversify their means of assessment, we could start to say goodbye to the traditional exam situation.


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