The system is unfair: Humanities students shouldn’t sit exams

An end-of-year test does not reflect our abilities


Minimal contact hours, crushingly long reading lists and relentless essay-writing. That’s a humanities degree for you. Given all the stick the sciences give us for our late starts and days off, we’re really a busy bunch seldom to be caught without some reading or writing deadline approaching.

As we often have to point out to the more obnoxious scientists, our degrees couldn’t be more different and the humanities are no less relevant than science just because we don’t have thirty contact hours a week. So why, given these differences, do we all face the same method of examination at the end of the year?

Exams Picture 1

The scene of many a late-night revision session

We’ll all sit in a hot, sweaty exam hall in front of an unseen exam paper which could test us on any part of the last year’s work. Within a certain amount of time we’ll regurgitate whatever our brains were able to absorb during those late, takeaway-fuelled revision sessions at the library. The resulting work will give us our mark for the module, or at the very least a large part of it. They really matter. So what skills are we being examined on exactly?

Time management, undoubtedly. But, while in theory it should be possible for anyone to write enough in the time-frame, any student with a resilient writing-hand has a distinct advantage – avoiding that throbbing, searing pain which could stall even the world’s greatest writer. Writing skill itself is certainly important as well. But writing skills without time to plan, edit, mull-over or even reference – all of which a “real-life” historian, politician or sociologist will do.

Other than that, it’s all about working memory capacity and the ability to recall information under pressure. Someone who can recite a page of History notes, including statistics, historical interpretations and quotes, all while the clock is ticking and your degree classification counts on the next couple of hours, will patently do better than someone who simply can’t.

The powers that be would probably mention at this point that all of this is simply a means-to-an-end. At least by revising hard and going over the whole course they’re ensuring students come out with a good general knowledge of the subject they’re being tested on. But, as Mr Hector quite aptly argues in The History Boys: “Knowledge is not general, it is specific”. He may have been referring to general studies, but his words also ring true of humanities degrees. No historian has ever been acclaimed for their ability to regurgitate a series of vague factors within a two hour timeframe in a hot room full of fellow students and that one person with the sniffling nose – and the same goes for sociologists, politicians and geographers.

I went to a school where the A Level History format was so exam-orientated that it took people with a natural love for History and made them hate it and it’s desperately sad to see the same thing happening at university too. Why can’t we be trusted to run away with our own essay questions, honing in on a specific part of the course and examining it in greater detail? This way we’d develop a true interest in the course and make an actual contribution to our disciplines. It would let truly talented students, not well-composed, strong-handed memory-robots, shine.

Marking our modules based solely on an end-of-year essay or research project would acknowledge the obvious differences between our degrees and others. We study expansive subjects. Subjects where there is no single answer to any question and where our opinions and outlooks are the basis of our entire degree. It’s time university departments stop pretending an end-of-year exam does any of this justice. They disregard the skills we spend the entire year perfecting: analysis, research, writing and arguing in favour of hastily scribbled, poorly considered ‘essays’ which we would be embarrassed to put our name to in any scenario other than an exam.