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?