Exam Madness

The students are back for Easter term and already driving me slightly crazy with their worries about the impending exams. This year the madness has spread to coursework, with my students incapable of actually learning to improve their work, so overriding is their concern about the grade they may receive. It seems a paradox, but it isn’t when you think of what lies behind the examination system these days. An examination is by no means simply three hours spent in the company of a ruled notebook and an overstocked memory; it is an entanglement with pride and self-esteem, the desire for love and approval, fear of failure and hidden but powerful desires to be something more than we actually are. It is a potent cocktail of psychic terrors.

Up until the middle of the eighteenth century, most undergraduates at my university were asked a couple of random questions by a university official, who sat on a three-legged stool and wasn’t overly fussy about the answers. This stool was the ‘tripos’ that came to designate all Cambridge’s exams. In 1850 the Royal Commission was set up to modernize the university, and as part of its recommendations, subject areas shaped themselves up, took themselves seriously and introduced written papers.

The motivation for these early exams was an excellent one. They prevented the aristocratic undergraduates with no thought for earning a living from boozing, sleeping and whoring their way through their so-called studies. And they offered a truly democratic opportunity for career advancement. Through the use of the examination, the university consolidated its position as an intellectual meritocracy, a place where a man’s mind mattered far more than the circumstances of his birth. Until relatively recently, this was a rare and beautiful thing in a feudal, then class-ridden society. An exam was understood as an objective, indisputable proof of capability. Passing an exam meant you were quantifiably better than people who hadn’t.

It’s this very seal of quality that has made modern examinations such a political nightmare. We’re very squeamish nowadays about saying that one person is better than another, whilst thrusting children into endlessly competitive testing, and exams have become ideologically fraught in consequence. To get around their potential divisiveness, students now sit exams as proof of a level they have reached; they are expected to pass and the only question is how well they will pass. Papers are carefully crafted to make sure nothing appears that confounds a student’s expectations. But removing some of the elements of risk from exams only sensitizes students to the risks that remain, unsurprisingly, if having-a-go means having to succeed.

Early psychological research on motivation has never had the impact it deserves on our educational system that insists exams are the ultimate encouragement to learn. In the 1940s an American professor named Harry Harlow set rhesus monkeys to work on a mechanical puzzle. The lab researchers placed the puzzles in their cages to observe their reactions, and quite unexpectedly the monkeys started to figure them out with determination and what looked like enjoyment. Neither incentives nor threats had been offered; there was no sense of survival at stake. Instead, the monkeys had exercised nothing more than their innate curiosity, something they were not theoretically supposed to possess. Scientists were obliged to entertain the possibility of another motivational drive – the pure enjoyment of the task itself.

The same drive was visible in another experiment, conducted in 1978. Three researchers observed a class of pre-school children and identified the ones who chose to spend their free time drawing. These children they separated into three groups. The first group were each shown a certificate and asked if they would like to draw in order to win the award. The second group was invited to draw if they wished, and presented with the award afterwards. The third was invited to draw without rewards being present in any way. Two weeks later the researchers returned to the school and watched the same children in secret. The children in the ‘unexpected-reward’ and ‘no-reward’ groups drew as enthusiastically as they had before. But the children who had been shown the award in advance and received it afterwards spent less time on their drawing and displayed less interest. The experience of the reward had provoked a shift in expectations that altered their relationship to the task entirely.

As any parent knows who has ever offered their child money to clean the car, a reward is a signal of many things. It indicates a task that is onerous, that would not be undertaken without some added incentive. Once that incentive is given, there is no going back. The reward instantly becomes a necessary counterpart and is subject to inflation. Bigger, better rewards are needed before the task can be contemplated again, and the thought of the task without the reward is anathema. An activity that might have contained elements of play or interest has become a form of work that must give back as much as it has taken.

The examination system, with its promise of a reward to be conferred on those who spend time studying, completely alters the students’ relationship to learning. Researchers discovered that rewards also tend to undermine an individual’s creative ability. The thought of a reward focuses the mind – literally. All lateral thought is abandoned, the mind becomes dulled in its thinking, tasks actually take longer to perform under the pressure that suddenly springs up. The more desirable the reward looks, the better the chances of succumbing to the temptations of unscrupulous tactics, short-cuts, cheats, and other forms of unethical behaviour. In short, the very concept of the reward removes the most altruistic and beautiful of our motivations – the will to understand – with the most brutish and inelegant of our mental processes. Rewards are great for tedious, menial and simple tasks. They become obstacles when difficult, creative, complex endeavours are at stake. And what is worst of all for students facing examinations is that the reward at the end is not about survival, or money, or even a certificate. The reward concerns their very sense of identity, something far too precious to be bartered against a harried, anxiety-ridden mind-dump in a lecture hall. When will we ever realize how much we have lost – students and teachers alike – in this obsession with testing?


27 thoughts on “Exam Madness

  1. In answer to the last question we never will because the people who are running this system are its products. Secondly they are only interested in what is quantifiable and these days ‘productive’ – whatever that may be. Even scientists admit most breakthroughs have more to do with accident and chance than anything else. What hope creativity?

    • I’m holding out for a backlash! This is turning into an annual rant for me, and maybe if I keep going, other people will join in and well…. you’ve got to hope. I was very glad to hear the other day that universities will now be involved in setting A level exams. At last! Why did government officials ever think they would know what they were doing? We all know the system stinks at the moment, so you’ve got to hope there’ll be a groundswell of feeling eventually.

  2. The US has gone way overboard on testing and it is, in my opinion, damaging the educational system. Not only does it affect teachers and what and how they teach and whether they get raises or are fired, but it also affects what kids learn since learning becomes solely focused on passing the test. I never had too much difficulty with final exams for classes but the big standardized tests terrified me and I never did well on them. I really feel for students today who have so much more test pressure than I ever did!

    • You’re so right – exam results dominate the system and for no good reason other than they can be measured. Why governments think they will get anywhere by trying to measure and classify people, I will never know. When I was at uni, we all just had our best shot at the exams. Of course it mattered and of course our pride was involved, but it wasn’t the madness we witness nowadays.

  3. Here in the States the whole testing thing has become a monster. I feel like students are being taught to take tests instead of how to think and to create. I’ve spent a small fortune educating my 18 year old son in the private school system to try to avoid this testing trap.

    • Well that’s what I think too – they ARE being taught how to sit tests and that becomes the primary way of transferring information. I do hope your son has enjoyed his education more thanks to your intervention!

  4. I found this a very interesting post, if depressing. It is a curious paradox that we are obsessed with testing everything yet cannot shoulder the – what? responsibility? – for failing people. Really it just shifts the goalposts, don’t you think?

    And although I am a lady, I must say that sleeping, drinking and whoring your way to a degree sounds rather fun.

    • I was thinking about this a bit more, very much from a place of ignorance I hasten to add, and it seems to me that the current system doesn’t just put unbearable pressure on the students who are motivated and able, it leaves so many others with no qualifications and not even basic skills in literacy and numeracy. I know that’s not what you were discussing, but perhaps the rigidity and lack of creativity in the system(s – some of us are talking about the US) which you and others in the comments highlight is a factor in killing off some children’s curiosity and willingness to participate in education. (I know that it’s more complicated than that though. And then there have always been children who didn’t ‘fit’ the education system and dropped out for all sorts of reasons, I just wonder if there’s a higher proportion these days.)

      • I’m sorry my replies come out in funny places! This is to your second comment. I think you are fundamentally right. When children don’t do well in a subject it becomes torture for them because the exam is all that matters. They don’t have much chance of surprising themselves by being interested and curious about part of the course even if they don’t like the whole. What I see at college is a lot more anxious students. And they’re anxious because they don’t feel congruent with themselves – they have to strive more and knock themselves out of shape more to fit with the system and it’s really uncomfortable. So I agree with you!

    • Lol! You always make me laugh Helen! But you nail it with the paradox you identify. So many tests and yet no one must fail. I think schools are okay with it (or would be, if their income didn’t depend on it) but families find it harder and harder to ‘accept’ their child hasn’t done well. What they’re really not accepting is the system and the way it measures children, which is a better thing to protest about than the result itself.

    • Heather – good call! I have it already and read it a while back (when I was writing the piece this post was taken from). It is a very good book and I heartily recommend it too.

    • No it isn’t in fact. Our exams take place in the lecture halls – much smaller and with tiered seating (and Fellows in black gowns swooping around invigilating). I don’t know where this picture comes from, but it looks very intimidating!

  5. It’s getting more and more acute, this pressure with getting good marks, not just for intangible psychological booster and self-esteem, but on pragmatic ground. I know some potential employers of students in professional school (e.g. law) would ask for academic transcripts… even just for summer employment. So, it’s not just the education system, it’s systemic of the whole society.

    • I’m wondering whether this is worse in the States and Canada than in the UK. It’s true that the traditional professions, like law, are hot on seeing the paperwork, but there are still lots of ways to get into the system without too much reliance on exams. For instance, a small, local firm of solicitors would probably take on a work experience student without too many grades being thrown about – but that would be if they needed a student. Outside the big firms and the big cities things are easier. But I’m sure that if we keep insisting on exams as the ultimate standard of judgement, that sort of requirement will spread.

  6. I’m in two minds about this. I’ve seen both systems work and fail, depending on the person. In Switzerland you see all sorts of systems run in parallel as schools and universities change not only from one city to the other but from school to school. No centralization whatsoever. At university level tests and exams are ususally only applied in life sciences, never in the so-called philosophical-historical branch (literature beaing part of that). The testing works different, the studies are much longer, more thorough, less specialized. Many drop out because without exams they do nothing and exams is what we know from school. I hated exams and did well at uni, much better than in school.

    • I wonder what it’s like to be in a system with so many choices! I know that when students are used to exams then they find it hard to work without the pressure of them – although I think that proves my point. They just destroy intellectual curiosity. My own experience was that when I entered into graduate studies and no longer had to sit exams, I did miles better (came top of my year group). I really felt the release of pressure, but then I knew I loved what I was doing – I just wanted the freedom to do it my own way, not have to conform to the exam question.

      In many ways I’m not against exams as a component of testing. They do a reasonable job in evaluating certain skills like memory and clarity under pressure. I think it’s the basic attitude we’ve managed to create towards them that bothers me, their dominance in the way we think now about what we are good at doing and what we are not. They only test certain skills, and as soon as you have a nervous student, they’re not at all representative of what s/he can do.

  7. Interesting post and I agree–there is too much focus on the end product/result than on the process of getting their–the curiosity part. I see it with my 13 year old niece who has been tested and tested this year and hates it. It’s hard knowing you don’t test well and then you end up just feeling bad about yourself as you don’t measure up to standards. And it makes it hard on teachers who know their jobs might be on the line to pack all the information in because they know the must get results and then the message just gets lost in it all. A real pity. Learning just becomes a drag and not something good and interesting–to do just because you want to know more.

    • Danielle – I feel for your niece! I have never seen my son so low in spirits as the years when he was being constantly tested in a school that was hysterical about exam results. It just makes the kids miserable, unless they are good at sitting exams (and that’s only a small proportion). You are so right to say that learning becomes a drag. It does, and when you think how wonderful it can be to learn, how enlivening and thrilling, well, it just seems a waste to me. Of everyone’s skills and time and emotions.

    • No! Do you really! I owe you an email – I got a wonderful card from you but it arrived on the same day I had a meltdown and so I never got my email to you. Boo to me! I am a poor excuse for a friend. But I will drop you a line later on!

  8. Hmm. I think I commented some time ago on one of your other posts with a similar theme.
    Keeping the joy of learning, self-motivation and curiosity are some of the main reasons we have decided to home school our children. People, interestingly, don’t look at me as though I have two heads when I say we are planning on doing this. It seems we are choosing to take an educational road that is becoming trendy.
    May I recommend John Taylor Gatto for an alternative assessment of the US educational system. It makes for interesting reading, even for those of us who do not live there.

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