Debate: Are we Over-Examined?

LIZ ELDER and JUAN ZOBER DE FRANCISCO question whether we are an over-examined generation.

Cambridge University exam term Exams job over-examined results revision revision notes

With exams looming, and our social lives taking a backseat, we asked two of our writers to discuss the relevance of exams. Are they necessary, or are we an over-examined generation?

Liz Elder argues that despite being stressful, exams are a necessary evil.  

Examinations. That very word strikes fear within me, swiftly accompanied by both excessive sweating and a minor heart palpitations. And, let’s not even get started on UMS or Tripos. 

Gaining a place at Cambridge is an achievement that depends almost solely on the number of As achieved at A level. That, and a platinum Duke of Edinburgh award and grade 15 piano certificate. But, even these nice little UCAS form padders are exam-based. Even the Cambridge interview is effectively an exam; I certainly spent the night before my interview furiously cramming key words into Google and panicking over which chair to sit in on the off chance that it revealed something about my character.

Exams are definitely stressful. And, that examination hall pressure is merely the culmination of months of competitive note stapling and underlining. At Cambridge, the stresses of such exams have reached a ridiculous level. With still almost a month to go, the libraries are overrun with frantic students. We’re all ill through lack of sleep; not hangover related, but from drawing obsessively detailed pie charts of globalisation factors, accompanied by an increasing addiction to the mighty Highlighter, as well as the requisite Pro Plus.

So, even a group of people who (apparently) excel in exams can make a case against them. But, I have to wonder whether an alternative actually exists? Everything we achieve in life is seemingly examined, and it is that exam mark that gives these achievements value. Your general interests are all well and good, but realistically, unless you have qualifications in them; they are effectively useless. Otherwise, your achievements are not quantifiable. In fact, these interests get relegated to the ‘other interests’ section of the CV, which is understood by everyone to be equivalent to ‘items of bullshit that I have included, in an attempt to blag this.’ 

This is, perhaps, a hollow approach to life. But, a cold, hard exam result is the only way to be decisive amid the resolute blagging of those un-examinable features of your life. And, everyone does know that unless there is a certificate of proof, you are likely to be lying. We all know that being involved with ‘cultural growth in Thailand helping orphans’ equates to ‘spewing a vomcano with Tarquin’. And, ‘I enjoy being involved in current affairs’ means ‘I Googled BBC news just in case, but please don’t ask me anything. I’m clueless.’

So, it seems that examinations are a necessary evil. Anyone can argue that they should get into university, or land that dream job, but only the stomach- crushing, nauseating experience we know as exams serves as a genuine ranking to actually support your ambitions.

Juan Zober de Francisco, however, disagrees and argues that we are indeed over-examined.

Are we over-examined? Damn right we are! 

I was initially surprised that the ‘yes’ side of this debate hadn’t been snapped up days ago, but then it hit me: of course people weren’t volunteering to defend the rights of students around the world against the despicable exam format that we are victims to: those who have too many exams are too busy revising to write for The Tab! So, despite being a second-year SPS student with only two exams this year (yes, hate me now), I’m going to write a defence for the students consumed by exams because, damn it, someone has to!

Here are my two cents: It’s human nature to quantify. From intelligence to love, we have a natural tendency to want to find concrete, objective measurements of (often subjective) traits. Yet, too often we fail to realise that this desire for order cannot always match up to reality.

It’s exam term. The sun is shining, and you’re feeling guilty about procrastinating on The Tab instead of revising. Why? Because: society wants quantifiable proof of your intelligence, dedication, hard work and potential. It is in this vein that exams are proposed as a solution, and it’s because of this flawed, logical step that you will spend over a month in a constant state of guilt that you are not doing enough.

Let’s take SATs as a brief case study. Back in the day, the SAT exam stood for ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’. After a lengthy battle from psychologists and other experts, the College Board that administered the exam in the US were forced to change the name. Why?  Because it was pointed out that there was no examinable definition of ‘aptitude’, and therefore to call something a test of scholastic aptitude was completely misleading: it doesn’t stand for anything now.

At first glance, this may not seem to be very important, but it is. Exams rarely test what they claim to. The SATs didn’t test aptitude; just as your exams aren’t an accurate reflection on the work you did this year, or your potential for future success. Look around you. I’m sure you know an example of someone who messes around for a year and then bunkers down in the last few weeks to sail by with a high 2.1. I’m one of those guys. I see and understand the frustration from people who diligently spend a year going to lectures and taking detailed notes only to get the same grade as I do, but this is indicative of a problematic reality: get the right exam technique, and you’ll get the grade. 

It’s as simple as that. Exams test nothing more or nothing less than the ability of an individual to adapt knowledge and use it to pass an exam, but we often forget this. Exam results are falsely used as a proxy measurement for general intelligence and future potential. Exams test neither of these qualities.

We live in an increasingly standardised society. That’s fucking boring for a start, but also dangerous. From kids learning how to bubble in multiple-choice answers before they are taught how to read to university students doing past papers instead of learning more, we are increasingly falling into this temptation to examine instead of teach. 

The time that you spend organising the information you have (hopefully) gained over the course of a year towards one three-hour exam is important. It’s important for both your development and your ability to use and recollect this information in the future. But we are increasingly finding that the focus is changing from learning for learning’s sake to being able to ace an exam.