Higher Education: Exams are hell. Discuss: Michael Bush argues that we can do without a rite of passage that's all wrong

Click to follow
Universities are distinguished by their summer ceremonies, centring upon a rite of passage which, redolent of the society of orders, seeks to confer degree. For a day, distinctive attire is donned and senior academics become officiating priests; but on the morrow, the magic has gone. No job, no status. The photograph on the mantelpiece, the medallion on the wall, the diploma in the drawer represent nothing but the memory of a theatrical experience.

As useless as the degree ceremony is the ritual that precedes it; for the rite of passage involves not simply the touching of hands and the donation of a document, but also a trial. Placed in custody for two- or three-hour periods, students are subjected to peculiar tests. They don't stitch mailbags but they have to do something equally as mindless: writing answers to questions which they have never seen before in conditions which render them totally dependent upon memory and incapable of deep thought. On these occasions the academics become the warders. Some take their duties seriously, patrolling up and down in squeaky shoes.

For students, the conditions can be grimmer than the worst prison. Each university has its examination hellhole: a gym with a glass roof and noisy floor, or rooms ill-lit, smelling of sweat and poorly ventilated.

Such a system of examination is clearly a test of character but, since there is no simple correlation between academic ability and examination performance, it is not necessarily a test of intellect. Plagiarism in its most blatant form is prevented - that is, students copying from each other or directly from books - but the last thing the system promotes is independence of thought. Rather, it encourages the plagiarising of course lectures. The examination is also useful for testing basic knowledge; but can a university be regarded as intellectually sound if what is required of the student is merely the ability to perform well in a quiz?

The examination system is presented as equitable. With students set the same test under the same conditions, surely fairness must prevail. But examination secretaries each year encounter the victims of the system: the ill and the injured who are obliged to take the test, although unfit to do so, and whose only resort is to plead for special treatment by means of a medical note deposited in a very fat problem file. Others have examinations so close together that they are handicapped by exhaustion and insufficient revision time. Just as disadvantaged are the dyslexic, the foreigners with poor English (ie Erasmus students) and the very mature students with declining memories. And all this is quite apart from the student whose intellect, although considerable, is incapable of moving at speed or of working under trying conditions, and from the hardworking student whose prepared topics fail to appear on that year's paper.

Trial by examination has no proper intellectual justification. What's more, it is clearly inequitable. Yet academics remain deeply attached to it. After all, it was their initiation ceremony. They became academics because they passed it with flying colours. To question examinations is to question them. Sentimentally, they defend the system on the grounds that they did well in it. With equal irrationality, they defend it as a real-life experience, although none of them has ever composed their published work under invigilation, without access to books and within a spell of three hours. For an academic to question the system, he becomes suspect, an irresponsible promoter of chicanery and a throwback to the silly liberalism of the Sixties. But in view of its defects, surely something needs to be done.

An outsider would quickly realise that normally academics have formed a very clear idea of their students' intellectual capacity before the examinations take place, since university courses usually involve tutorials and marked assignments. However, moved by the suspicion that students cheat, the course work is either totally ignored when grading them or allowed to count only in a secondary manner. Yet independently of the examinations, students have already proved their worth. For this reason, it would be quite possible to dispose completely of examinations, with nothing lost.

The gains are considerable. The major drawbacks of the examination system stem from the fact that, to prevent cheating, the students are not allowed a preview of the questions. As a result, the examination becomes a lottery. For the student, everything depends upon the questions set coinciding with the answers prepared. The unlucky student is obliged to improvise, whereas the lucky student is able to deploy prearranged answers. The lottery element encourages the student to play safe and passively abide by the course lectures. In them, it is reasonably thought, will lie the answers to the examination questions. Strong pressure then is brought to regurgitate this material and the student is thus obliged to remain obedient to the way in which the tutor has defined the course.

On the other hand, abandoning examination assessment opens up another educational world, one in which independence and initiative have a chance to flourish.

Another drawback of the examination system lies in the speed at which the student has to perform. Much depends upon what the academics expect to inculcate. If the priority is on fast work, then the examination is of course fit for the purpose. But if they wish to encourage originality, scepticism and creativity, then it is not.

Assessment by assignment, in contrast, erects another set of goals. The priorities become: personal initiative, independence of thought, depth of analysis, originality. And the criterion becomes not what can be done sufficiently in fleeting circumstances but simply what can be best done.

The outstanding drawback to a system of non-examination assessment, of course, is the spectre of the student cheat. But it is a sorry state of affairs if this can be precluded only by preserving a system of assessment which is intellectually indefensible.

The writer is Reader in History at Manchester University.

(Photograph omitted)