I’d like to start by acknowledging that this post is in no way my attempt to excuse myself from poor exam results. I have the great fortune to be quite academically capable. But that doesn’t stop the exam system from being a gruelling and unfair process. In this instance, by ‘unfair’ I mean that it is in no way representative of people’s real world abilities.
However, at this point in time I am unable to offer any shining solutions to the problem which leads me to wonder if there are any. Despite this, I still feel the need to point out the glaring holes in our education system in the hope that, having identified them, someone might begin to go about correcting them.
1) It is a memory test that we can’t complete
To almost every student who has ever sat an exam, this point is particularly poignant. That sickening feeling of “I’m sure I know this.” that comes when you sit staring blankly at an exam question with an answer just out of reach is one I’m sure all of us have felt at some point.
And there is a reason for that. Scientifically speaking, your body responds to stress by producing the steroid hormone ‘cortisol’. This hormone confuses and disrupts the processes of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory.
This makes it particularly difficult for students to perform well in exams because their memory recall is significantly hindered. When the exam is based solely off what facts you can remember, this poses a bit of a problem.
2) WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT
Famously, the saying goes, ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ and this is all too applicable to exams.
Throughout our entire education we have been told that we need to study in different ways because everybody learns differently. Surely, then, it stands to reason that if we learn in different ways, we ought to be tested in different ways?
Speaking from my experience only, I have friends who adore controlled assessments and despise exams, and those who think the complete opposite. Of course, there are courses out there that enable the student to get the same qualification in a less exam-based way, but for some reason these seem to have a less academically impressive stigma.
Why should people be ashamed to admit that exams are just not the way their brain works?
3) A stroke of (mis)fortune can determine your future
Recently, a friend of mine came out of an exam complaining that she had remembered an answer too late to finish the question and remarked on how ridiculous it was that 60 seconds difference could mean the difference between a pass and a fail that could affect her whole career.
I think that pretty much sums it up.
But another aspect of the GCSE courses that I’ve just completed that irks me is how the specifications are far too broad to be covered in an exam. This leaves it very much up to a stroke of luck whether the questions that come up in the exam are the ones you have covered in most detail.
Very frequently I have done two past papers on the same subject and found that very few of the questions in them overlap. That means that if you know half of the subject incredibly well (which is often a feat, especially with the amount of science there is to learn), there is a 50/50 chance that none of it will come up. If it does, great, A*, if it doesn’t, better luck next time. Except there is no next time.
Additionally, having just marked a past paper before writing this, I found multiple questions that I had answered correctly but because the question hadn’t specified exactly which way they wanted me to answer it, my answer didn’t match what the mark scheme required and I therefore lost out on many marks even though I understood it.
I find it ludicrous that your whole future can be determined by which specific questions you are asked in your exam.
Therefore, while I can’t say I have solutions to all these problems, I can say that the current exam system leaves much to be desired.
~ From Bea