Thinking about Exams

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Exams and I have a fair degree of history together. From that fateful first day in third year when I waited anxiously outside a gym hall to sit my Standard Grade English, to desperately scouring the labyrinth that is Glasgow Uni, trying to find my Honours English Literature exams, or waiting in the rain outside the OTC building, trying not to get run over by passing cars as rain splashed onto my notepad, exams and I have gone through hell and back together.

And they’re a funny thing, exams. Subject to much controversy too, especially in recent years with the dominance of technology over almost all other forms of learning and examination (who hands in a handwritten essay these days? is it even allowed?). Exams suddenly seem awfully old-fashioned. Individual (wobbly) desks, ink spilling everywhere, people writing with fury in an echoey hall. It seems a strange idea, to sit you in a room at the end of the year, thrust a piece of paper in front of you and force you to desperately pour out something resembling an essay in response to a set of unseen questions. I’ve thought about them long and hard over my time at school and college and uni, and come up with some pros and cons:

Pros: 

  • The fear forces you to study, to recap the information learned over your course.
  • The early stages of studying can be fun. You’re relearning and rereading, and in the process making interesting connections between texts, based on a more mature understanding of the course gained from reflection.
  • It can be an opportunity to shine, to show that you can come up with something original in a very short space of time.
  • You learn the value of concision.
  • If the questions are well-designed, the exam can be a true test of your analytical abilities and skill for quick-thinking – there are not many other times when you have the adrenaline necessary to formulate a coherent piece of writing in such a short period.
  • It’s nice to realise that you’ve learned chunks of poetry by heart. Even if they begin to slip away fairly quickly once you’ve left the exam…

Cons: 

  • Risk of being a memory test. While remembering and recalling information is important for lots of subjects from law to physics, English Lit and other humanities subjects is often about critical thinking skills rather than just remembering ‘data’ aka quotes. Lots of students memorise whole essays and go into the exam, then shoehorn and regurgitate what they’ve stored in their head. Sometimes this works, other times it ends badly. Either way, it isn’t testing much more than your ability to write fast and repeat.
  • Anxiety. This is a real problem for some people and can really hinder their performance in an exam, even if they’ve studied hard.
  • Breadth vs. depth. In an essay, with the advantage of time and access to material, it’s a lot easier to formulate a response which balances careful close reading and discussion of relevant secondary criticism and theory. In an exam, it’s too easy to fall back into the trap of plot summaries, even though you’re perfectly capable of analysis. Exams don’t always reflect your ability to synthesise material, or the extent of the research you’ve done.
  • Too much weighting. In my degree, exams are worth 50% of each course grade. There’s a lot of stake in those two hours, and if you have a brain freeze or something goes wrong, you can really drag down all that hard work you put in during the semester.

There are probably lots more, but here are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My solution would be not to scrap exams entirely, but to use them more effectively. Perhaps have mid-term close reading tests, which would examine your ability to respond ‘naturally’ to a text and your critical skills, rather than just your memory. Maybe also a 25% end of term exam, replacing the other 25% with another 3000 word essay. Maybe it will go that way in the future with credit standardisation; some universities don’t have exams for English Literature at all. The problem of course is that unlike subjects such as law and medicine and business, exam conditions are more unlikely to be part of any aspect of a future career sprung from a literary subject. While some jobs will require you to do set tests e.g. solving financial problems as part of the interview process, you are unlikely to encounter something like that in journalism, academia, publishing and so on. An essay with a deadline seems more akin to the work English Lit tends to lead to.

I can’t remember the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in an exam. There’s always that brief five minute panic when ‘your questions’ haven’t come up, and you have to radically rethink your answers and quickly choose a question; but usually in turns out in the end, and often the most spontaneous answers get the best mark. I guess one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done is Higher Music Listening. I mean, it shouldn’t be, but it just seems to be this horrible trail of riddles, where you have to discern different instruments out of tangles of sound in a very short space of time before the clip stops playing. Also, because you have to maintain concentration as a room of people listening to the same tape, your brain gets pretty muddled. And you can get distracted: I was so excited when the tape played The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’ that I made such a hasty decision about which rhythm change it contained that I put the wrong answer down. The coding sections of Higher Computing were also tricky, and writing four essays in an hour and a half for Higher Modern Studies is always the bane of your fifth year existence. Every student in Scotland who did languages will probably remember the terrifying voice that blasted the announcement about this being the STANDARD GRADE FRENCH LISTENING exam through the crackly stereo at the back of a gym hall, with all the aggression of someone holding you up in an armed robbery.

***

There was a golden moment towards the end of my last exam, when I realised there was less than ten minutes to go, and I was onto the conclusion, and soon that would be me – done forever. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ll miss exams (hopefully, I’ll never have to do one again unless I decide to take up driving), but there’s something completely rewarding about the adrenaline rush and the nerves and the exhausting release afterwards that seems pretty unique. A bit like doing the Olympics, but for your brain (and your wrist). To anyone who still has exams to sit, good luck and remember it’s not the end of the world; and ultimately, they are always going to be a somewhat artificial test of your ability!

(Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether exams are a good means of assessment or not for literature-based subjects).

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