Contradictory exam systems prepare students for work

University exam processes should be reviewed as inappropriate

Your exam results reflect the amount of work you put in. If you revise with slides from lectures, sheets from seminars and highlighters in a rainbow of hues, you’ll do well. If you fly through twenty hours worth of lecture notes in twenty minutes, you shall fail miserably.

But when exactly was it decided that an individual’s knowledge was best displayed by them being able to write, say, a one-hour essay on a certain subject matter, and since when did society prize the ability to churn out essays against the clock above thorough analysis, consideration and respect for reason?

maybe such an education is preparing us perfectly for the real world

Isaiah Berlin made a famous distinction between a ‘fox’, which draws on a wide variety of experiences, and a ‘hedgehog’, which observes the world through the perspective of a single idea. Stephen Fry borrows this analogy in his autobiography to describe how he excelled at university exams by becoming a hedgehog and ‘cheating’ the system.

Having perfected and memorised an essay before an exam, Fry would thus write it regardless of the question, altering only the introductory paragraph. He also describes how a fellow student worked with diligence at every question, attempting to answer the exam set. Needless to say, such an approach performed badly against the constraints of time. It seems that the worst thing to possess when sitting an exam is an interest in the subject.

Another glaring inconsistency is the need to assert ones ‘academic integrity’ before handing in an assessed essay. Grappling with referencing systems at four in the morning can is almost guaranteed to unseat reason. Yet, come to an exam, and ‘open season’ is declared allowing a panoply of rich academic game to be poached at will. Is anything a greater contradiction to the notion of academic integrity?

However, maybe such an education is preparing us perfectly for the real world. Success in Parliament, journalism, the Law and any number of careers reward the ability to subjugate a source in line with what one wants to get from it. To perform this with ease is surely a guarantor of ‘success’.

In the words of, Professor Donald Trefusis: “education prepares you for life, it is therefore incumbent on you, in order to succeed, to cheat, copy, steal, paraphrase, adopt, adapt and distort.”

One comment

  1. I feel I must point out one little point that didn’t seem to survive the editing process! The first paragraph should actually read thus:-

    “Your exam results reflect the amount of work you put in. If you revise with slides from lectures, sheets from seminars and highlighters in a rainbow of hues, you’ll do well. If you fly through twenty hours worth of lecture notes in twenty minutes, you shall fail miserably. Oh, if only life were so simple.” Note the last sentence!

    Other elements and nuances alas were not included but the omission of this particular one seemed to interrupt the theme of the article somewhat!

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