The Problem with Exams

I realised today why I’m having so much trouble motivating myself to revise for these exams.

It isn’t that revision is boring, although it is.

It isn’t that I feel the exams are fairly irrelevant to what I want to achieve, although I do.

It isn’t that I know I’ll do tolerably well even without revising, although I think so.

It’s that I’m irritated by the whole premise of an exam. They don’t test how well you have understood the material, or your ability to think critically and analyse and make an argument. I have written some quite good essays this year which have demonstrated all of those things. But exams have an element that is missing from essays, and that is rote memorisation.

I’m finding it difficult to find another aspect of life where this sort of memorisation is required. When you fill out a tax form, you don’t have to remember exactly how much you earnt that year. You check the paperwork. If you want to research a place to go on holiday, you don’t have to scramble to recall school-day geography lessons, you just find some information about the places you’re considering. When you cook a meal, you are allowed to follow a recipe. The more often you do something, the less likely it is that you will need to depend on an external source of information, but you aren’t ever forbidden from checking it.

Qualified lawyers don’t make their cases based on what they can remember of something they read six months ago, and frankly if they did try that I expect they would be found professionally negligent. Surgeons don’t perform operations without reading the patient’s medical history.

I could go on but I expect you have understood my point by now. All exams are testing is our ability to cram the names and facts and dates into our brains. So when the results come out and the notices go up ranking us in class order for all to see, those rankings don’t actually reflect intelligence or understanding. Certainly there is an element of that, but the ability to remember specific wording and exact names plays a large part. As far as I can tell, the purpose of an exam is to test how good you are at passing exams, and that is seeming increasingly ridiculous to me. At least all the exams I have done up until I reached university did in some way have a purpose – albeit a daft one – because I was proving by achieving high grades that I could… achieve high grades, and then I used that to get to the next rung of the examination ladder.

Now I am stalling, waiting for an opportunity to drop back down the ladder to the start of another degree in which memorisation will be far less important than competence, and exams will be substantially replaced with practical assessments and project work. It just seems to make more sense somehow. What, really, are exams preparing us for? At the end of the day, if I get a 1st in these exams all it will prove is that I spent a lot of long, boring hours reading a list of case names over and over and over, trying to etch them into my memory alongside the relevant concepts. I’ve understood the concepts – just today a friend asked me about something which was relevant to an essay I wrote several weeks ago on international law. I remembered the gist of what I had read, and what I had thought about, but I couldn’t remember the name of the international treaty I was referencing, and I certainly couldn’t remember the specific article number. You know what? It didn’t matter. We didn’t need to know those, and if we had, I could have found the information in seconds.

I will revise for these exams, because I need to get a 2.1 in order to a) live up to my supervisors’ expectations, b) retain my self-respect having achieved high 2.1s all year, and c) stay in the choir. I will jump through the hoops because I signed up for this hoop-jumping over four years ago and I’m certainly not getting myself into £20,000 worth of debt just to throw it all up in a fit of pique over the whole system. But I am not getting het up about it and I’m not measuring my personal worth against my percentage score at the end of it all. Whether you believe in God or not, the fact is this: at the end of our lives, we die no matter how highly qualified. No one goes to heaven on exam results alone.


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