Last year a satirical student newspaper ran a story along the lines of: “Student discovers cure for cancer, withholds secret until finals.” It’s a tale that brings tears to the eyes of everyone who has spent the last few months memorising arguments and equations for their big exams – if they have any tears left to shed. But the true genius of the story, beyond its ability to comfort thousands of hysterical young people, is its critique of the exam system. This year, for many Lancaster modules, the majority of the marks are going to come from one sit-down exam, and it’s bothering me.
As a person who has spent the best part of 19 years under constant, “full-time” examination and is far, far beyond the help of any new adjustments to the education system, I think that I deserve some consideration when I say I’d like a stronger emphasis on coursework. Of course, as academic tradition dictates, it’s only right that I also give proper consideration to the work that has gone before me, so let me dispel some arguments for the way things are in the world of examination.
One myth about exams is that they demand more academic rigour than coursework. A two-hour exam is no place for rigour. The clock doesn’t stop for basic academic standards of referencing or elaboration. Why take the risk of evaluating the question and showing original thought when you can regurgitate something vaguely related from your lecture notes, bump up your word count, and save enough time to produce legible handwriting towards the end? In turn, rather than encouraging a considered method of revision, this tempts students to cram the relevant facts and figures, botch some kind of structure during the exam, and forget anything useful that may have come of the course in mere days. If academics seriously believe that exams are a means to academic rigour, I dare them to start evaluating PhD students in silence at desks one metre apart.
Another misconception about exams is that they prepare you for the outside world. It’s the only real response to complaints that a student’s educational future can come down to a couple of hours in which they might get sick or distracted (and not compile a folder of snot for evidence of mitigating circumstances, or however that works). “That’s life.” The world doesn’t take doctors’ notes. And in a way it’s true: human history would have taken a very strange turn if Trotsky’s influenza hadn’t confined him to his bed during the big Communist Party conference, or if Alexander the Great hadn’t died of some sort of savage hangover days before his great sea voyage. But that doesn’t make it right.
In fact, exam conditions are precisely what we don’t experience in the real world. If ever I find myself in a situation at work where I have to rapidly anonymise and bind several answer papers without making scratchy noises on the desk, then I’ll write back to the University and thank them.
A final, infuriating defence of our fascination with exams is that coursework is somehow easy. Proponents of this view tend to cite the increased proportion of students gaining firsts in courses that rely more on coursework – which is reminiscent of arguments we used to hear each August when the GCSE results came out, and I’m not sure if it’s an act of extreme self-deprecation by educationalists or of general resentment towards young people. If students get low grades, it’s received as the first signs of the end of human civilisation, because the students must be thick. If, on the other hand, students get high grades, it’s presumed to have uncovered a fatal flaw in the education system, because the students must be thick. In actual fact, as anyone who’s ever tried to decipher a mark scheme knows, coursework marking criteria are as exacting as they ever were – and they can always be made harder.
Coursework is a way of measuring students’ academic fulfilment without bundling them into situations where they must hold onto their stationery, their thoughts, and their lunch at the same time. A modest drop in the weightings of exams would make students more comfortable with their studies, and that’s something Lancaster has chased for years.