Frightened by exams

Can one have a vicarious sinking feeling? Is it possible that the apprehension felt by others is something that might be fully sensed by oneself?

The Leaving Certificate mock examinations have begun. A room filled with people of seventeen and eighteen years old sits staring at the pages on the desk in front of them. Some write furiously, some stare into the middle distance.

This afternoon it is the first paper of the mathematics exam, the students are a mixture of higher and ordinary level candidates. The candidates’ level can be deduced from the colour of the cover of the examination booklets, pale blue for ordinary level candidates, pale pink for higher level candidates.

Sitting at the front of the room an hour before the end of the exam, it is not hard to see that a number of the ordinary level booklets already lie closed on the desks in front of despondent faces. Finger-tapping by one disengaged candidate necessitates a glare across the room, a hand is raised in apology.

Exams never seemed to make sense,

Being a lazy sort of person, I developed skills in doing just enough to get by. Being reasonably literate, there were exams where I managed to score highly without ever having done the work that might have merited such a mark. It always seemed unfair.

In 2023, do school leavers really need the sort of mathematics that can be measured in the twenty-four pages of an examination booklet?

Undoubtedly, there are aspects of the mathematics in the booklet that are essential to many future qualifications and careers, but does sitting in a room for two and a half hours provide an appropriate means of means of measuring the proficiency of the candidates?

It was from an old episode of BBC television’s QI programme that I discovered that written examinations were a recent phenomenon. The first written exams were at Cambridge University in 1792. Presumably, prior to that date the cost of paper militated against students sitting and spending hours writing answers.

Discussing examinations with my supervisor, who is a professor of education, he pointed out that oral examinations have survived, but at doctoral level. Candidates for doctoral degrees are expected to give an oral defence of their thesis.

If qualifications at the highest level can be awarded on the basis of a process that does not require the lottery of examination rooms, surely it’s not beyond the wit of educators to devise better means of assessment.


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6 Responses to Frightened by exams

  1. djc says:

    But you don’t get the PhD just for the oral exam. There’s a book-length thesis to write, and the examiners (should) have read it before that oral defence.

  2. djc says:

    ‘Coursework’ seems an odd term to use.
    PhD Thesis: a book-length answer to an exam question you have set yourself in order to prove you are the world expert on a subject that no one else is interested in.
    Mine took five years.

    • Ian says:

      Thank you. I look forward to it.

      It was originally my intention to do my doctorate with Warwick, but I then withdrew from the process and by the time I had returned my intended supervisor had reached an age where he was no longer taking doctoral candidates, so I registered in 2021 with Bishop Grosseteste University/Leicester University.

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