The Problem With Exams

Let’s talk about why we get so fed up with exams.

Supposedly, these exams should filter out the strong from the weak, the smart from the not-so-smart.  We need exams to figure out whether we actually learnt anything.  We need exams to tell us how intelligent we are/how convincingly we can write/how creative we can be.

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The thing is, most exams at the moment don’t do that.

They’re better indicators of how well you know the mark scheme/how hard you crammed/how agreeable your examiner happens to be at that moment.

A Solution?

There are two ways the exams might be ‘improved’, and which one you prefer depends on where your strengths lie.

First Proposed Solution: Relevant Questions

The first is to have more interesting, creative and relevant questions in exams so that we are actually learning skills that might be useful in the real world.

The people who are more eloquent, creative and better problem-solvers will excel at these sorts of questions.  Crammers won’t be able to predict these questions so the intelligent, well-rounded sort of people will get the top marks, right?

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Wrong.  By having a question with a larger scope, the mark scheme will have to be very lenient to allow for creative ways of thinking and problem-solving.  A lenient mark scheme means that someone who doesn’t know what they’re saying (me) can bulls**t without knowing anything and still get the marks.

What’s worse, though, is that it’s now down to the examiners to decide which solutions are ‘better’, making the marking very subjective.

If one examiner decides a creative solution is ingenious, whilst another thinks it is ludicrous, this makes for a very unfair system.  And since exams are (at the moment) hypothetical, who’s to say which solution is better than another?

Second Proposed Solution: Eliminate Examiner Subjectivity

Students should be graded on their ability, not their examiner’s niceness.  This means that there needs to be a very strict mark scheme, with no opportunity for erroneous marking.

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However, a strict mark scheme will only test whether you’ve learnt the material on the syllabus rigorously.  That means that crammers can pull off an all-nighter and get top marks, whether or not they learnt anything all year or will remember anything afterwards.

The bigger problem, though, is that this doesn’t differentiate the creative from the unoriginal, the bright from the dull, or the eloquent from the inexpressive.

There Is No Simple Solution

At the moment, exams are a mixture of the two sorts described above.  Depending on your subject, this means that some questions are very textbook, whilst others are more creative and allow a little free reign.

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Some subjects are more textbook (*ahem* physics) whilst others are more reliant on persuasiveness and creativity (history and ToK, I’m looking at you).  This means that the different types of people do get differentiated, and it’s what makes people better at some subjects than others.

Mixing the two types of questions incorporates the different methods of differentiating but there will always be complaints about the problems.  You just can’t get the good without the bad.  If you complain about the specificity of the mark scheme, you won’t be any happier with a non-specific and more subjective one.

What do you think?  Do you think there is a better method for examination?  Which solution would you prefer?  Let me know!

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24 thoughts on “The Problem With Exams

  1. All I know is I am so glad I am over the school exams phase! Especially the mcq’s as I always preferred essay questions over those. I probably should have added an extra box of option saying ‘I am going to be a blogger a few years from now so let me speak!’ … Haha

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    • Yeah that’s true, it’s how convincing your answer is and that usually doesn’t really correlate with how much you know the material! Thanks for dropping by 🙂

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  2. I know you take lots of science-based subjects Jess whereas I take English-y ones which is probably why I didn’t understand the first solution perfectly first time! Your ‘more relevant’ questions sound very much like how my subjects are examined and how they get you to think abstractly rather than as you say learning a mark scheme, absolutely no disrespect meant to science-y people 🙂 I guess the two are different skills taught by different subjects. Thanks for linking to my post by the way!

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    • Haha yeah I do a lot of science-based ones and you’re right, they are basically learning mark schemes (which I find OK because I like it when there’s only one right answer that can be ‘logicked’ out).
      Yes I think abstract thought is a very important skill that needs to be taught (I still do English and a bit of philosophy in a subject called ToK) but mark schemes are more vague to allow abstract and creative thought, which allows a bit of leeway for subjectivity. Subjectivity undermines the whole point of an objective grading system, which I guess was what I was trying to elucidate here! No prob, I really enjoyed that post so I thought I’d share 😉

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  3. So . . . this was literally my exact thought process during high school. For us, exams are literally about writing to a markscheme, so for English there was almost a formula: include at ; , – () for higher marks, include a similie – but a metaphor will get you more marks; maybe some adjectives and adverbs. Rule of three? Maybe some alliteration in there too – wait, have you included a rhetorical question too?

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    • Haha yeah exams are more about trying to read the examiner’s mind and tick all the boxes and jump through the hoops – but there’s no other way to check if you’ve actually absorbed anything you’ve been taught! Too creative and it could be missing the point; too basic and it won’t score marks. I liked your cheeky rhetorical question 😉

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  4. I agree with this totally! I was actually having a conversation with a friend earlier about this and we kind of came to the conclusion that there is no way to completely balance it all out – there is no way to get rid of subjectivity, especially in an English exam for example, and there is no way for an examiner to completely give 100% effort to every single paper as there always has to be a chronological structure. Therefore, it all sucks but there’s sadly nothing anyone can do about it.

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    • Yeah it’s a bit annoying really because everybody has their merits but the whole education system (and society in general) works by grading people to push them towards their role in the future. Obviously some people are better at some jobs than others, so a system like this kinda works but very crudely.

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  5. People most easily controlled get material rewards. Quite often the opposite of intelligence. Of course conservative parents will claim the successful children recognized the game and were good at playing it. Lol. There is a matter of ethics and morals and each individual must have their own moment of truth

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  6. Exams in my context is a memorising game, and a bit of application. There are three types of students- scientific, language, and practical (more on hands on stuffs). Students with a language talent will excel better compared to scientific and practical students, because science and maths subjects can be trained with crude practice whereas language is more than hardwork, thus leaving the practical students in the most difficult situation because they have to put in tremendous effort, and after the effort, it is still not guaranteed that the practical students will score as high as those other two because they simply could not do it. Therefore, my opinion for the exams system is to have a more rounded exam system where they take homework, practical work into account, thus the marks can be well averaged out. Those who are more all-rounded can be ranked higher whereas the not so all-rounded people will be ranked lower.

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    • That is a good idea to tackle the inequitable exam method of memorisation, and I think coursework etc. are a good way of reducing the memorisation game, as you so aptly put it.
      However, I think that all-roundedness might not be such an important thing especially as we’ll need to specialise at some point and this system doesn’t reward those who are really good at a certain group of subjects. Interesting debate there though!

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