There I said it. Something that has been bubbling under my skin for years. I apologise now for what will inevitably become a series of sentences that one could label 'rant'.
But in all seriousness - what academic merit is assessed by a formalised test? Legitimate study provides many skills: debating logic, learning skills, constructing arguments and destroying others. This is a cursory list of assessing the true test of knowledge of an academic subject, granted.
The crux of my complaint with examinations as a whole lies within the origins of the entire system.
I seem to recall (but in my annoyance cannot find) a story that highlights the danger inherent in them. A Cambridge chemistry Professor in times of old, assessed his students degree classification based on a conversation. An interview-like session lasting several hours discussing various thoughts and theories in chemical scripture. At the end of the session, using his expertise as a guide, he would give a mark. That was it. As the years progressed and more people were admitted, the ageing Professor didn't have the time or the patience, despite the willingness, to sit with each of his growning number of students sipping brandy and discussing chemical philosophy. Too much brandy let alone time. So he wrote his questions down. Gave them a period of time to answer them. And the 'exam' was borne.
What started out as a resource:time efficient tool, now formalised, has since become a test of memory, and little assessment of understanding of the topic.
Psychologists have long debated the purpose and factors that affect memory (e.g. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1129522) as any A-level Psychology student will ironically tell you. Variants from stress on the day; home circumstances, the last time they went to the loo/ate food/drank drink; the temperature of the room; the time of year/day; the number of people in the are; the tone of the examiner; the clothes they are wearing; biological symptoms - the list is endless. All can reportedly affect a persons memory.
And all can therefore affect the outcome of the memory test that is an exam. What if you have memorised a factoid religiously and you forget it when the crucial 2-hour slot comes around? Tough. You can't analyse and demonstrate you're aptitude at the subject if you can't remember that which you were supposed to analyse.
As James Cleverley, London Assembly Member, succinctly points out:
When was the last time that you were asked to do a piece of work completely alone, with no input from your work colleagues, no reference material and with a claustrophobic tight deadline? I'm guessing never. Yet this is often the situation we create when we ask children to sit exams.He is absolutely right. From UG dissertations and PhD theses; to journal or news items - none are expected to be written from memory alone. Could you imagine carrying out genuine academic research without using the internet or a variety of sources?
In truth: exams are a necessary evil. They are a way of society ranking, sorting and advancing some citizens over others due to a lack of resource. Not everyone can get into College/University so exams are utilised as a performance indicator. Like a management consultant using appraisal tools. Exams are here to stay, but their academic merit is certainly in question.