August brought the first drop in exam passes since GSCEs were introduced fourteen years ago. It has caused a small storm on the heels Great Britain's historical achievements in the Olympics, which may explain some of the disappointment felt: how could the kids let us down after so many gold medals? Or, how dare the exam boards make the exams more difficult! They've changed the goal posts. Well, for those of us of a sceptical bent,it has been rather strange watching our nation's pupils grades increase annually, when the cultural distractions have multiplied and nutritional chemical consumption has increased and the human brain has not evolved to a higher plane. Instead of worrying about the 0.4% drop in A-C passes, we should be reconsidering the pedagogical worth of exams.
My pupils hear this regularly, but it's worth sharing. What do exams do? The general answer is they test a pupil's competency in a given area. This is partially true: exams also test a pupil's ability to pass exams. That's different. It has long been noted that some students are good at passing exams but cannot express what they have supposedly learned coherently, or they forget it straight after the exam! Then there are other pupils who are highly competent in their subject but go to pieces in exams - their result doesn't reflect their innate intelligence or love of the subject.
From a tutorial point of view, both kinds of students need to alter their methods: the competent exam taker needs to step outside the tunnel of school and exams and get a feel for learning things for their own sake. He or she needs to own the information personally rather than learn it impartially to be regurgitated in an exam and then forgotten. Such learning remains superficial - but it's amazing how far superficial people can get by just passing exams!When they finally graduate, they wonder, though, why they are not picked for jobs.
In our experience, we have met many exam machines who are thoroughly unemployable--their studious focus is too narrow to be of use in many areas of employment, which may explain why many exam machines cling on to university studies and aim for a PhD and then, if they're lucky, post-graduate research. Again, I've known many PhD folk who are unemployable. It's not that they are "over qualified" as some would immediately say, but that they are horrendously "under qualified" in understanding the broader picture, how to deal with people, or being "street smart." It's also why many apparent under achievers (in school) do well in business - they see the big picture, they're street smart, and they know how to deal with people and get the best out of them.
Personal tuition can help both.
The nervous exam taker needs to be pulled back to the foundations of their passion and then to be checked if what appears to be a confidence in a subject is indeed a competence.
Often, fears of exams come from having to sit exams at an immature age, when exams don't really mean anything but when there is a lot of pressure to do well for some reason or other from schools or parents to show some skill level. Later in life, the pupil exhibits a lot of nervousness, typically under timed conditions. Here the goal is take ensure that the pupil knows and understands the exam requirements and can proceed without any stress.
However, sometimes exam nerves simply reflect a lack of knowledge or preparation: the pupil "kind of knows" or "sort of understands" but really has no coherent depth in the subject. Again, a tutor can spot this lacuna and help to improve knowledge and study skills.
The exam machine needs to get more life experience and often to be allowed to make choices. Sometimes their sense of self worth is dependent on grades (and we have to ask - where did that come from: primary school, parents?) and the pupil may be in desperate need to have a paradigm shift. It will come - the question is when, and how disruptive it will be. The great philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown at the age of 19 following an extraordinary education which had him reading Greek and Latin in his infant years rather than climbing trees and throwing apples at girls.
Life should not be about hitting targets created by other people - we should create our own targets and aim for them instead!Exams are designed by external authorities and living by their standards creates a second-hand existence rather than an authentic individual experience.
Unless universities want their raw talent immediately (for instance, mathematics or physics departments), it is highly advisable for these students to take a year off or to pick up part time work or volunteering. To get out and to find what they find valuable. Rich grades can sometimes mean dire mental poverty!
Sports offers a great chance to get involved, but so too does rambling if the corps d'esprit doesn't tempt. Fresh air, gardening, working with children of different abilities...thoroughly human pursuits are a useful balance to the educational exam system.
Then there are those for whom exams are pointless. They find no joy in expressing their academic abilities. Nonetheless, we usually find that they can express their talents in extracurricular activities more easily--sometimes in not great endeavours of course, for if they are turned off learning from cultural or educational pressures from an early age, they may turn to destructive and self-destructive paths. Such individuals, who want to do well at some level, may require a pragmatic understanding of why exams are important if they want to get into college. But as mentors we also need to develop their sense of self worth outside of the educational system and exams and grades - remember, many of our entrepreneurs and even inventors were just passionate about what they did, rather than scored great SATs results.
Examinations were invented, as far as I can tell, by the Chinese, to employ the "right kind of people" for the government bureaucracy. In many respects, that's what exams are still for - to see if we fit into a prescribed box. Tick if we pass, cross if we fail. But the box is a "mind forg'd manacle" (William Blake)--as much for examiners as pupils. Rid the mind of the boxed, second-hand life, and either the pointlessness of exams becomes clear or they become a little more palatable.
©Dr Alex Moseley, August 2012