Why exams should be scrapped

SAM RODRIQUES has had enough with exams

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Students who arrive in their first year at Hogwarts file into a grand hall and have an oversized hat placed on their heads. The hat hums and harrumphs for a while, before exclaiming with no justification whatsoever that the student has been sorted into one of four houses.

Later this term, many students in Cambridge will get to experience a similarly arcane ritual firsthand, as they file into a large hall, scribble on a piece of paper for three hours, and then send the paper to an unseen committee of old men and women who will hum and harrumph for a while, before exclaiming with no justification whatsoever that the student has been sorted into one of four classes, with the rather less imaginative titles, “first,” “2.1,” “2.2,” and “third.”

A Cambridge student’s class plays a huge role in determining what opportunities are available to them after graduation. If hats could talk, I might be willing to accept “magic” as proof of the exam system’s efficacy. But hats don’t talk, and Cambridge students shouldn’t have to peg their hopes and dreams on an unaccountable system that simply makes no sense as a way of measuring academic achievement.

The exam system is doing damage to students’ future prospects, and it is time for it to change.

Exams are for losers

First problem: most papers are evaluated by a single examination. Employers and graduate programmes treat a student’s final marks as though they reflected the student’s average performance. If you want to measure a student’s average performance, setting them one exam is literally the worst way to do it.

A student’s performance on any individual exam depends strongly on complications like illness, personal circumstances, and fluctuations in sleep and concentration, which have nothing to do with academic achievement. A one-exam system is like a game of academic Russian roulette, in which many students walk away with marks that drastically underestimate or overestimate their ability.

It introduces an element of chance that should be unacceptable to the students who dedicate so much money and hard work to their educations here.

This is the easiest problem to solve. Some papers in the Engineering department are already evaluated by two or three courseworks, or a mix of courseworks and exams, rather than a single exam. That is a major improvement, and should be replicated across the university.

Second problem: As with most UK universities, there are only four classes. In the rest of the world, students graduate with a number that reflects their average mark across all modules. Students who perform almost equally well get almost equal numbers. By contrast, in the UK system, if you work incredibly hard and get the top 2.1 in the University, you’re just as far away from a Ph.D. position at a top university as the lad who missed 90% of the lectures, only started revising last week, and just scraped by with a 60 on all of his papers.

The problem most severely affects students near grade boundaries, for whom the difference between getting a job and going unemployed is decided by the specific selection of questions that appear on the exams.

No more of this

Beyond this, the four-class system encourages examiners to make arbitrary and unaccountable decisions about whether or not a paper “deserves” a particular class, rather than marking on an empirical scale. It’s not fair, it’s not necessary, and there is simply no benefit.

The UK system is the educational equivalent of using ounces and gallons while the rest of the world has moved on to grams and liters. Doubtless, the classing system was also invented in the 1200s. But now we know better, and doing something the wrong way for 800 years does not justify anything but change.

The third problem is the utter lack of accountability in the exam system. Why aren’t marked exam papers returned to students? It wouldn’t be a logistical nightmare; all the top American universities manage it. Sure, students would complain about marking errors, but giving students the power to check their own papers for errors would take some pressure off examiners. And, to avoid examiners becoming overwhelmed, a student’s DoS could screen complaints first.

I suspect that in reality, examiners simply don’t want to have to justify why some papers deserved one grade while others deserved another. If so, then this is exactly the reason why students must demand their papers back. £27,000 and three years of hard work is a lot to lose to a con man.

Cambridge students should demand the right to ensure that they are being marked in a fair, transparent, and above all, consistent way.

As tuition fee rises increasingly turn students into consumers, the examination system will come under greater scrutiny. No matter how good Cambridge is, no student will want to bet their future on an archaic, Rube-Goldberg system of examinations.

The solutions are obvious and straightforward, and could be implemented in a few years.

Cambridge should take the opportunity now to set an example, distinguish itself among UK universities and avoid future damage to its standing by committing to a fairer, more modern system of evaluation.