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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
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

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Assessor / Trainer

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Ashdown Group: Payroll Manager - London - £200 p/d.

£190 - £200 per day: Ashdown Group: Payroll & Finance Manager - Covent Garden,...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas