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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Nurse and Room Leader - Hackney

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a qualified childcare p...

AER Teachers: PPA TEACHER/MENTOR

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This is a large and vibra...

AER Teachers: EYFS Teacher

£27000 - £37000 per annum: AER Teachers: EYFS TEACHERAn 'Outstanding' Primary ...

AER Teachers: YEAR 3 TEACHER - PREPARATORY SCHOOL

£27000 - £40000 per annum: AER Teachers: YEAR 3 TEACHER - PREPARATORY SCHOOLA ...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies