July 21, 2003
How useful are exams?

Alice Bachini on exams:

I'm so glad I'm not a teacher anymore

Partly because you have to deal with things like exam grades being completely stupid and meaningless. How does a teacher spend all year encouraging kids to take something seriously, only so that at the end of the year, the whole thing ends up becoming a farce?

Well, in my view, almost all school exams are pretty farcical. They don't help children learn, and there's no real value whatever in examining them on things unless they need clearly to demonstrate some kind of commitment to and ability in some subject in order for universities to have confidence in accepting them on courses, say.

If people are going to have examinations, they should organise them properly, with some kind of decent academic standards. At least then people know where they stand. Otherwise, they definitely ought to forget the whole thing.

I'm not so sure. Proving commitment is right, but it's not just proving it to universities.

In Brian-world, children decide for themselves whether they take exams or not, but if they want my advice I'll tell them that exams surely prove something important besides the mere matter of whether they have merely learned the contents of the syllabus. They prove, it seems to me, the ability to handle information under pressure, on the one big occasion when it really matters. This is surely an immensely important skill, and arguably the key skill of working in a modern information-based economy.

It is said that, a few years later, and maybe even a few weeks later, you will have forgotten everything you "learned" for those exams you took. So what? Most of us forget the facts around whatever task we are performing, after we have performed it.

I will have forgotten most of the mere facts surrounding this post pretty soon, and probably in a matter of a few days. That's not the point. The point is: Am I using the knowledge I now have to make a worthwhile point, to you, now? If I am, then mission accomplished, and if I've forgotten all about it in a week, that won't matter. The posting will still be here, in the archives, even if I have to think hard to remember anything about it myself.

What exams test is the habit of switching on one's concentration, onto what matters, when it matters. And since concentration can't be permanently switched on, exams also test the ability to switch off one's concentration at the right times, and thereby to make best possible use of it.

This is why employers take exam results seriously, and why they are surely right to do this.

It is also surely why they are not that bothered about the mere content of the syllabuses being examined. Just so long as it's something, and just so long as the brains of the examinees were really tested.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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