Exams: another cog in the wheel?

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Amélie Davidson

Following the decision to cancel all physical examinations for the April/May exam diet, Amélie Davidson examines whether the current university exam system should be abolished.

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide.

Exam. The feared word. The word that has the power to make any student’s stomach do somersaults and mouth go dry. Too much comes down to this one exam in May. The one exam where your brain is so overwhelmed by nerves that you can barely remember what your surname is, never mind how to write a critical essay in 45 minutes.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines an exam to be “a test of a student’s knowledge or skill in a particular subject.” However, I believe that exams are just a memory game which very rarely test a student’s understanding or ability to apply knowledge. Therefore, it is imperative that the current exam system used in UK universities is abolished and replaced with a better, refreshed system. 

Of course, if it was announced that university students were to no longer sit exams there would be an outrage, but likely not from students. So are there any viable alternatives for this entrenched system? I propose that instead of having exams at the end of the year, different forms of projects, online assessments, and essays should replace them throughout the year (depending on the degree, of course). This could be used to determine how much knowledge a student has about the subject, instead of exams which only show how well they can memorise. If students were to be assessed on all their work throughout the year instead, this would introduce excellent habits of working hard all year round. It would also be a far more accurate and less stressful way to assess students. A good assessment should aim to provide a balanced and fair evaluation of each student. Why should a student who attends every class and is passionate to learn, attain a lower grade than a student who studies a week before the exam and passes with a high grade?

Many would argue that exams play a pivotal role in universities, providing a fair and balanced evaluation of every student as well as providing an excellent opportunity for students to enhance their knowledge by studying. However, Edward de Bono, (philosopher, physician and author) wrote: “Many highly intelligent people are poor thinkers. Many people of average intelligence are skilled thinkers. The power of a car is separate from the way the car is driven.” This is where I believe the university exam system failing. It automatically dismisses the knowledge seekers who do not fit the cookie-cutter mould of the system. Due to inflexible and strict marking schemes, the “one size fits all” exams discourage creative, out of the box thinking and are erasing alternative expressions of intelligence as well as failing to develop questioning, self-sufficient learners. 

It is painfully obvious that exams are only testing intelligence according to who can give the expected answers, instead of who can show initiative. It’s a case of what you remember, rather than what you can do. Students don’t necessarily understand what they are learning, they simply monotonously memorise facts and then when the day comes, regurgitate it onto the paper. Exams are not a reliable method of gauging the ability of students.

Most importantly, the UK exam system needs to be changed because of the devastating health effects that exams are having on students. Exams are not only ruining the joy of learning, but they are also making students ill and causing a detrimental effect on students’ personal well-being. Research by the University of Manchester’s “National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness” showed that of the 119 young people who died by suicide in the UK, 29% were facing exams or exam results; four died on an exam day or the day after. Sadly, this study also revealed that suicide is the biggest killer of people under the age of 35 in the UK, with it emerging that the number of suicides among children and young adults peaks at the beginning of exam season. These worrying statistics epitomise the growing fears that pressure to get good results is severely harming students’ mental health. This surge in anxiety and stress highlights the growing proportion of students who are simply terrified of failure. The psychological burden placed upon students should provide enough cause to reconsider assessing people by forcing them to cram months of learning into an intense handful of hours.

The current university exam system is failing and should be abolished. A good education is key to eradicating global issues such as poverty, gender inequality, and diseases. Education is one of the most critical investments that we can make. Nelson Mandela famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon for changing the world.” However, just like a weapon is completely useless without ammunition, similarly I think that education is pointless without true, burning passion which currently many students are lacking, with university often found to be a grinding slog that has an end goal of passing an exam. Education should be far more than another cog in the wheel.


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