Monday, 8 February 2016

Are Exams Really Necessary in the 21st Century?

by Loren Dean



Examinations are the bane of our school careers to put it bluntly. Whether it be an end of topic test or an actual GCSE or A level, the thought of an impending exam strikes fear into the heart of even the most hardened of students. After taking the mock GCSE exams over the course of January I have begun to wonder if there are really any benefits to taking an exam.

An obvious disadvantage for exams is the excess stress it put on people and how this stress has a detrimental effect on health. In 2010/2011 YoungMinds received 6332 calls to the helpline, 884 calls were about 16-17 year olds and, of those, 39% were about school problems including exam stress according to the Telegraph. Increasing pressure and stress will have an adverse affect on many young people leading to a range of mental health problems including self harm, eating disorders and depression. For a child who has problems in other areas of their life, such as family breakdown or friendship issues, exams can be the 'last straw'. This pressure is also increased by the sense that if you do not succeed in exams then your future prospects are ruined and therefore this places an unfair ultimatum on exams which only make the problem worse. However, the exam process can be a useful tool in dealing with stress which is an important life skill for future work.

Examinations can provided valuable life skills which are beneficial for future experiences in a working environment. The ability to independently study is a vital part of examination preparation and this is also vital in the workplace, where you are relied upon to work effectively without being dependent on others. Therefore being able to stick to deadlines and be self disciplined are also skills that are reinforced by the examination process which is beneficial for future experiences. In this way examinations are still a necessity in school life. Yet, a major problem of exams is that they encourage late night cramming sessions. Even though we all know they can have no benefit, these cramming sessions mean that students, mainly those on study leave, burn the candle at both ends and in turn inhibit their own examination prospects. Sleep is vital to consolidate information from revision and due to the heightened stress of exams, students are even less likely to sleep which will impact their general wellbeing.

A major benefit of examinations is the final part of the process in which we are able to review the examination and learn from any reoccurring or silly mistakes. This allows for the student to become fully aware of the answers required to deserve the top grades. It is also beneficial for teachers as an assessment for learning where it becomes clear which parts need to be more understood and developed within a subject. Additionally as the content of the examinations tend to be on a wide range from the syllabus of a particular subject, it means that all parts of a subject are likely to be revised by a student to ensure a thorough knowledge of the subject is understood. In contrast, by the nature of an examination a great deal of luck is also a major part. This is because an examination is a snapshot of a students ability to comprehend the particular subject and also is greatly dependent on how good/bad the questions are on a given day. Furthermore the unreliable nature of this may mean that a better process should be deduced in order to diminish the influence of luck and also external influences, for example bereavement.

The main problem with the examination process I find is the dependency on memory in order to do well. This means that the examination is unrealistic for the future as it is unlikely you will ever be in many more situations after all formal education where you will not be able to access the Internet and whereby simply ask google. Additionally the strict time restraints in which examinations are carried out are stressful and do not reflect the working world where you may be presented with a few days or weeks of preparation to give a speech or presentation. Yet in a PRS GCSE,for example, you have an hour and a half of pure panic to write down various length questions and in that time four mini essays as well. Whereby this examination becoming a test of how fast you can write without really thinking and not really testing your knowledge and understanding of each topic and hence undermining the whole purpose of exams.

So therefore in conclusion, the examination system we are presented with does not provide adequate preparation for working life and test only your memory of a subject rather than all-round knowledge that properly conceived coursework can afford. If we tackle this problem, I believe the formal external and high stakes examinations are the main problem and not the internal spot tests that we may endure in most classes. It is undoubtedly important to test knowledge as well as all round skills, but this can be done much more fairly through methods such as essays and the appropriate use of coursework than through the traditional finality of end-of-year exams with often quite challenging time limits. Fairer forms of assessment include more coursework, oral presentation, continuous assessments throughout the year and more project based work with educational outcomes beneficial for later life. In modern day education, familiarity with word processing, desktop publishing and powerpoint is a valuable asset and whilst essays and oral presentations allow the student to demonstrate these skills, traditional exams require students to write essays with a pen and paper - a very unnatural endeavour in the 21st century. 

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