Are school students becoming spoon-fed exam machines?

But how will I know the answers if I don't know what the questions will be?" This, believe it or not, is a question hundreds of Oxbridge applicants ask every year as they prepare for interview. The speed of the internet and the amount of information that can be accessed in a flash have contributed to a generation of school-leavers convinced that access to technology is all you need to answer questions and that being able to answer questions is all you need to succeed. Why should you think for yourself when there is a tool that can do it for you?

But tutors are looking for students who can bring something fresh and original to the subject. In contrast, a common trait in today's students is to rush headlong into problems without respecting that complex ideas require time in which to gather one's thoughts and deliver a structured answer.

Now that university places are to become scarcer than ever, students have to demonstrate that they are not automatons; trained to repeat facts, but are capable of carrying on a conversation and developing an idea.

While exams may still be stressful and difficult, what they are not testing is a student's response to unfamiliar material; quick thinking under fire. In some subjects, students who appreciate the syllabus and the mark scheme can score the points needed to get their grades without being pushed to their intellectual limit. This is a marked difference from the Oxbridge university experience, in which students are thrown in at the deep end and expected to enjoy it – and thrive.

In maths A-level, the questions are drawn from the syllabus and the pattern in which they appear does not vary much from year to year. In the Oxford University Maths Aptitude Test, on the other hand, students have to use cunning to identify which mathematical tools they will need.

In history A-level, students can have a good guess at which questions will come up, given the syllabus they are studying. In an Oxbridge interview, or the History Aptitude pre-admissions test at Oxford, questions may draw on any topic or period from history, whether students have studied it or not. They have to apply the knowledge they possess to give an interesting and strong answer. It is a strength of the Oxbridge admissions process that tutors have the experience, brainpower and time to test applicants in their respective subjects beyond the bounds of any sixth-form syllabus. The Oxford and Cambridge tests are hard because students need to prove that they have the ability to answer difficult questions and can demonstrate their academic worth and potential. The process is not focused on knowledge, but on the application of knowledge and is a chance to demonstrate intellectual curiosity and the use of logic.

Something has gone badly wrong in the education system, now that we have ended up with so many students glaring at admissions tutors for asking a question they are not expecting; unable to deal with its unpredictability.

What we need to work towards is an education system that gives students the skills to solve problems creatively and with structure, rather than depend on a set of rules.

The beauty of an Oxbridge education is that it helps to encourage students to think with structured irreverence; to create their own ideas from the very beginning, but at the same time to appreciate that they need to grasp a great deal of material before they might reach useful answers.

In order to prepare students for university, schools, parents and government need to ensure that we don't gain speed, technology and convenience at the expense of the intellectual rigour of our prospective undergraduates.

Rachel Spedding is managing director of Oxbridge Applications

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind are currently looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower