Letter: Exams are a test of memory, not of thinking capacity

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Sir: I read Lincoln Allison's article 'Only examinations truly pass the test' (1 June) the day before the final of my Final Examinations, where I expect, like the Eddie in his illustration, I will get a lower second.

Like many others, I have spent three years discovering that the more I learn, the less I know. In 1991, I would have sat down and written fluently about the subject on which I had heard lectures, engaged in tutorials and read in learned journals and textbooks. As the course progressed, however, I was taught to think and analyse and criticise.

When confronted with an examination paper now, I find it very difficult to regurgitate theories and the names attached to them, to think of appropriate analogies and, even worse, to propound my own theories, which have taken such a battering over three years. As for reaching a conclusion, when I have seen the deconstruction of the conclusions of those far more eminent than I by those more learned, how can I have the audacity? And yet that is what one is expected to do, over a wide range of subjects.

In the real world, outside academia, one is under pressure, yes, and one has to be capable of rapid deductive reasoning; but it is expected that the information systems that support such reasoning will be readily to hand, or at least available for reference. Examinations are largely a test of memory, not thinking capacity, which is why I am deeply grateful that my degree is assessed half on essays and half on examination marks - otherwise I'd be lucky to get a pass.

As for whether passing exams produces good career fodder, I would suggest this is probably only for those who are going to continue to take exams for their foreseeable future, or to prepare others to do so - academia is a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Many a textbook I have read suggests that academics discovered how to rescramble the work of their peers and predecessors long before students thought of it, and have made a pretty good living out of it]

Yours truly,



University of Lancaster


1 June

(Photograph omitted)