Friday, August 10, 2007


Do we Really Need E-xaminations?

I read a report recently that one study reckoned A levels had declined in difficulty by at least two grades over the last 30 years. Peter Wilby today revisits the topic which will, inevitably, obsess the media in a week's time. Wilby argues that we worry too much about exams; if everyone went to university we could do away with them completely. Maybe, but some kind of selection and measurement will still be with us when it comes to allocating people to jobs; for example, it's not much use directing someone wholly averse to learning towards medicine, or even teaching. Exams of some kind are always going to be with us I suspect and so we ought to make our peace with them.

Last year I introduced an additional 'fact-test' for my undergraduates to see how much hard fact they had retained from my lecture course. Results were both reassuring and worrying. The top mark was 95% and 60% managed over 40% but that meant that over a third of undergraduates at a good university had been unable to retain the most basic information about our political system, even though they had plenty of time to prepare. Many of the 'failures' had, by contrast done well in their assignments though the best students did well at both.

Some say exams or tests are unfair - held in frightening, candidate crowded halls, patrolled by gimlet eyed invigilators- which do not provide the best gauge of ability. I'm not so sure:

i) Exams are tough but so is adult life: being required to perform to a high level within strict time limits is not so different from many kinds of demanding work in the law for example or business, civil service etc.

ii) Continuous assessment via assignments measures a different kind of ability but don't we want to know how someone is like under pressure too?

iii) Sadly many students are not averse to buying essays from web based companies who can offer either 'off the shelf' products for popular topics or can produce a 'bespoke' one for the required title (at a much higher price).

As someone who has been involved in higher education virtually all his working life, I'm aware that exams are ridiculously inadequate as a true reflection of ability- the success of school and university drop-outs in business and elsewhere is testimony to that. But employers, need some kind of yardstick by which to assess recruits for all the manifold occupations available out there- the real test is how they do once they begin work for real. And in my experience, most high flyers in most professional walks of life, have been successful academically beforehand. Rather like Churchill's verdict on democratic government I think exams are probably the worst form of assessment, except for all the others.

Spot on.

Stories of academic failures who go on to great success in business or elsewhere always warm the heart but, like you, my experience is they are a tiny minority - the vast majority of successful people (certainly outside the arts & popular culture) have a strong academic background.

Interesting experiment with your fact test. I recall reading some technology guru on how the web will become ever more accessible - via phones, watches and perhaps even one day via some sort of embedded visual or aural device - and so sheer recall or memory will become increasingly devalued as an attribute.

This suggest a future where we'll need to assess people based on their ability to process, interpret and utilise facts rather than just recall them - something I'm not sure our (still essentially post-war) exam system is well suited to doing.

(Also raises the frightening prospect of Wikipedia assuming some sort of world dominance!)
Good points re adult life being difficult (with many stressful exam-like situations) and that exams are the least-worst solution. Cassilis is right that the meejah love a good story about the school failure who becomes a billionaire but they always like stories about exceptions.

The A levels my daughters have recently sat (one is awaiting results next Thursday - the same day I'll be getting beaten in a by election!) scarred the life out of me even though I managed to pick up 3 (A levels not daughters) back in 1969. So talk of dropping standards may be sour grapes from those who refuse to acknowledge that today's teenagers are generally brighter, more inquisitive and better educated than ditto were in the 1950s or 60s. All that talk about TV etc. rotting their young brains turns out to be the usual nonsense spouted about anything 'new'...
Actually, as a huge fan of the wiki, I'd not be too displeased. At least it's non profit making and wouldn't you prefer it to Murdoch?
Not sure I agree re last. My son used to play hour on hour on his games rather than playing sport outside and it used to cause me apoplexy. What possible educational value can computer games be?
"What possible educational value can computer games be?" - Lorks Skip you sound like my Mum! Better than watching paint dry for keeping the brain active or even than reading many so-called improving books imho...
Your Mum's right!
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