India Doyle: are timed examinations fair?

Asking whether timed examinations are fair is the equivalent of slapping your face with a dictionary. It’s totally pointless. “Wait a minute,” I hear you say, “this is coming from […]

Asking whether timed examinations are fair is the equivalent of slapping your face with a dictionary. It’s totally pointless. “Wait a minute,” I hear you say, “this is coming from a girl who wrote the seminal essay ‘the failure of the revolution’ in which you questioned whether something was fair for 600 words?

Ah, yes, but that was different. Thank you for calling it a seminal essay.

So, I write this in response to the title of an article I read the other day. I stress that it was only the title, because I couldn’t face reading the article. It also allows me to make as many assumptions about its content as I like, which is great.

It is obvious that timed exams are not fair, just as it is obvious to all children that life is not fair either. Sure, there are scientific reasons that prove that one gender performs better under different circumstances. But the fact is that asking an individual to demonstrate their intelligence in the barren waste land of the sports hall, for example, surrounded by a multitude of sweating, nervous students all working against the apocalyptic tick of the clock, is never going to get the best out of people.  

Yes, some people work badly under pressure: some people panic, forget everything that they have managed to stuff into their overwhelmed brains and write to a standard well below that of GCSE.  Whether or not you can perform in these circumstances is not a fair test of your intelligence, it is only a fair test of how well you are able to perform in these conditions. Those who can think under pressure do well, those who cannot fail. Such is the nature of timed exams.

The problem is that there is no fair way of testing anyone’s intelligence. The whole educational system is orientated towards measuring one very small part of a person’s intelligence – a purely academic one. There is no measure, here or in the rest of the educational system, that considers or encourages emotional or creative intelligence. Yes, it is imperative that these parts of a person are nurtured and encouraged more – I’m sure everyone has seen Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk. However, when you sign up for a university education, you are subscribing to an established set of rules. Changing the nature of exams will not change the over arching system. It will just mean that instead of going strong for a couple of hours, people will be allowed to wander off for yoga breaks or smoke a little bit of crack over their physics test.  

And to a certain extent, timed examinations already cater for the people who wouldn’t perform best under these conditions. Extra time is not a mythical creation: it’s there for the people who need it, and that sounds pretty fair to me.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a discussion about how to get the best out of people. However, the discussion should not be centred on whether these assessments are ‘fair’. You will never be able to accommodate every individual need within one system. Also, timed examinations have been used to measure academic intelligence since the dawn of time and the one thing that our education system needs is to be free of this incessant tinkling with methods that work.

In humble summary: nothing is fair so please quit whining and just get on with it.