Tim O’Brien: Week 7

‘Unfair, dated, cruel, and pointless’… this week TIM O’BRIEN turns his attention to exams.

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I know it’s the wrong term to publish this, but my time on this platform is nearly up and I really need to get this off my chest before I graduate. More than fifteen years repeating a yearly cycle of struggle, unnecessary stress, and early ageing demands it. I want to talk to you about exams. I HATE THEM.

For a start, when will the human race ever handwrite anything again? Except to please some cobweb-ridden old law professor who doesn’t understand how to open a laptop and stubbornly insists on pretending it’s 1956, I honestly can’t imagine any situation in which handwriting a piece of work should be necessary. The issue is drafting – in this digital age, you never have to hand in a first draft of anything. It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do after you graduate, I guarantee you will be using a word processor to do it. We’re the generation that redrafts emails and Facebook comments before sending them – in 2013 even your social interaction is subjected to some kind of drafting process.

That’s just how things work now, what with this little fad called COMPUTERS, yet still the majority of your final mark (a mark that will supposedly tell everyone you ever meet how your degree went) will be decided on some wobbly, time-constrained first attempt to hand-write a perfect answer to a question you’ve never seen before.

Screwing up your first draft

Furthermore, it’s a memory test. How can the University not see this? It’s quite simply a case of cramming a vast quantity of factual knowledge into your short-term memory store and splurging it all over the answer sheet with the excessive violence of a toilet trip the morning after a Curry King. Why should our final grades be determined by the amount of words we can stuff into our brains and forget the minute we leave our exams?

Philosophy is probably one of the subjects least guilty of this. Reading widely helps you do well in the exams, granted. Thinking broadly about the issues helps you, granted. But even in Philosophy, to prepare yourself for Cambridge’s favourite brand of leftfield, totally pointless, and related-only-to-some-obscure-corner-of-something-you’ve-studied questions you need to understand the key arguments they’re hinting at. And how do you learn these? You cram. You cram as many of them as possible into your head like a 50 stone man crams food, knowing full well it will never be enough. When you need to be transported to the hospital on a flatbed truck, your curse is that your stomach is bottomless – no matter how full you get, you will never feel you have eaten enough. Same with revision.

It’s a bit like that scene in ‘Matilda’ – remember the anger you felt watching Miss Trunchbull force that poor child to stuff himself with cake? That’s how I feel when I am revising. Why are they forcing us to memorise this stuff? English students spend half their revision time committing quotations to memory, whilst Natscis are told that the difference between a first and a 2:1 is rote-learning a seemingly endless list of studies’ names and dates (having done a Natsci module last year, I can honestly say this experience was on a par with being forced to watch 10,000 years of Nyan Cat – I don’t know how you lot do it). We only have so much space in our heads, and some have better memories than others; surely it doesn’t make me stupid or less worthy of a good grade for not being able to rote-learn information effectively? Don’t the 100,000+ words of supervision essays I’ve done in the past few years prove this? Why isn’t just doing good work enough?!



Maybe instead of exams we could just be given a really long list of numbers, and be forced to input as many as we can remember on exam day. Or maybe we could go for different types of cheese. Or automatic weapons. Or we could be given a bucket full of sand a week before the exams and be made to memorise the shape and size of every single grain (just look for the heads of those in charge and you’ll see there’s plenty of sand to go around). It doesn’t matter which of these you pick – it will measure the same thing, and it will all be forgotten the moment you walk out anyway.

In the meantime we could write essays on interesting things, and develop as people, and become generally more intelligent, and well rounded, and then… well and then on exams day we can be measured for remembering an arbitrary selection of pointless bullshit. Instead of measuring how good our understanding of the topic is, through well crafted coursework, supervision reports, essays, discussions – actual work – they can continue to force people with nervous dispositions to screw up every timed exam they ever sit, and make sure that people who might have worse memories than others are judged on it when their aptitude for something totally different is being measured.

Those in charge


In 10 years – even sooner I hope – we’ll look back at exams in the same we look back at caning kids or banning women from going to University. Unfair, dated, cruel, and pointless. Frankly, they are a total waste of the time and effort of everyone involved. Cambridge University, as usual you’re living in the past. Get with the times and get rid of exams.