A world without exams: is there another way?

By Emma Chapman

Exams are stressful. There is no denying that sitting in a stuffy room full of other stressed students whilst desperately trying to recall a year’s worth of knowledge is enough to unsettle even the calmest of people. As students, we are conditioned to simply accept exams as the default form of assessment – but are they really the best way to go about it?

Durham University, alongside its fellow higher education institutions, has measures in place to try and reduce students’ stress levels, yet numerous reports highlighting the toll exams take on students beg the question as to whether exams are really causing more harm than good.

A report published by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found that 94% of secondary school teachers believe exams can cause students to develop stress-related conditions. Meanwhile, the UPP Annual Student Experience Survey found that almost 6 in 10 students claim the stress of studying makes it difficult for them to cope. This was more prevalent in girls, with 67% of female students struggling to cope with the stress of studying at University, compared with 48% of male students.

almost 6 in 10 students claim the stress of studying makes it difficult for them to cope

Exams in their current form are often criticised for simply being a test of how well one can memorise information – especially in the sciences. Although a deeper understanding is needed for the top marks, it often seems like the ability to memorise information easily puts one in a more desirable position. This notion of simply putting in the hours to memorise the content is by no means exclusive to University students – it is even more evident in GCSE and A Level preparation.

Recently, Barnaby Lenon, the chair of the Independent Schools Council and a former Harrow headmaster, came under fire for saying that “the best GCSE and A-level results don’t go to the cleverest students – they go to those who revised in the Easter holidays.”. He also advised that pupils revise for 7 hours a day during the holidays – a claim that faced backlash from other teachers, pupils and psychologists alike.

“the best GCSE and A-level results don’t go to the cleverest students – they go to those who revised in the Easter holidays.”

However, despite some of the more obvious negative effects, exams do have their benefits in that they are a useful means by which to quantify understanding. Psychological studies have also found that regular testing improves long-term retention of information. In one study, a series of lectures was delivered, after which students either studied a lecture summary or took a short test. One month later, all participants took a test on the material and those students who had taken the test following the lectures (as opposed to reading the summary) performed most highly.

As with every form of assessment, exams are not perfect for everyone. Despite the difficulties faced by those who are not ‘exam people’, it seems that they are here to stay. A necessary evil? Perhaps, but with entry into many professions also involving some form of test or exam, it looks like we had better get used to them.

Photograph: PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay

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