Are Exams Outdated?

March 15, 2023

The dominance of exams within our school system is becoming more controversial than ever. Exams date back many decades and the question on thousands of debaters’ lips is: are our school’s assessment methods in need of reinvigoration? 

Forms of school level assessment have been diversified over the years, with coursework contributing at least 20% of A-level English Literature grades, for example. But exams still dominate and a student who thrives in coursework will still be required to achieve excellence in exams if they are hoping for top grades. Is this right or should we be working to change it? It is clear that parents and teachers alike have much to say on the topic, so let us take you on a whistle-stop tour of the camps that position themselves for and against ditching exams for good.

Exams are no longer relevant

Those who believe that exams should be given the boot tend to be strong supporters of modernisation within education. They suggest that the system requires a radical shakeup and that exams only reflect how outdated mainstream schooling is.

In their view, a school system dominated by exams fails to acknowledge different forms of learning and engaging with the world, particularly when it comes to neurodiversity. A means of assessment based solely on memorisation, time limits and high pressure offer only a limited reflection of teaching’s successes or failures; the idea of quick recall being synonymous with deep understanding is less than convincing to the anti-examers. 

They believe that a system that favours students with good memories over those who can grapple effectively with in-depth concepts, but are perhaps less able to remember facts and figures on the spot, is fundamentally flawed. The problem is compounded in their eyes by the reality that exam results currently determine entry into the majority of university courses and high-level jobs; a lot rests on the way we choose to assess our youth.

Exams are pointless

Plus, they argue, exams, particularly within the area of humanities, generally allow for only surface-level engagement with material. It’s easy to question the wisdom of asking students to produce an essay in one hour and expecting anything more than second-hand insights that have been spoon-fed to them in class. Additionally, cramming material in the run-up to a single 2 hour-long assessment is arguably less than conducive to students’ long term retention of information when compared to, for example, continuous assessment. 

Those against exams worry that an excessive focus on this form of assessment may even be encouraging the more negative aspects of working life beyond the borders of schooling - the parts of our jobs that favour fast turnaround to the detriment of deep engagement with a given issue, as well as worker mental health. In these days of quiet quitting and a widespread interrogation of the productivity doctrine, many believe that lessening the focus on exams could be a step towards challenging the aspects of corporate culture that value profit and high speed growth over employee wellbeing and fulfilment at work.

Exams prepare students for life

So how do exam supporters respond to the nay-sayers? Many bite back at the suggestion that the fast recall, high pressure context of exams have no real world equivalent beyond school. Medicine is often cited as an industry in which recall speed can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. 

No method of assessment is perfect but exams are likely the closest we have come to a practical and convenient method of establishing how much a student remembers of their studies and how well they can apply it on demand. Not all assessments can be real world-based but exams at least offer an effective simulacrum of the high pressure environment of the average workplace. Like it or not, work is demanding, and the better prepared students are for performance under high stress conditions, the easier the transition from education to work will be.

Exams strengthen memory function

And while anti-examers often critique a form of assessment so heavily skewed towards memorisation, pro-examers remind us how important it is not to underestimate the significance of strong memory function. On-tap information access provided by Google, not to mention the cognition compromising effects of social media, mean that young people’s ability to retain information is constantly under threat; exams have a vital role to play in helping learners keep this part of their brains well-oiled.

Perhaps more controversially, certain exam advocates also argue that exam culture can encourage healthy competition. The black and white nature of exam marking allows for clear differentiation which can give students precise goals and aims within their studies. While constantly pitting ourselves against others can be counterproductive, a measured dose of comparison can in fact be a helpful motivator, providing the necessary clarity for improvement.

Should we ditch exams?

So, what do you think? Is developing students’ ability to perform under pressure only ever a positive, or should we be shifting assessment methods in favour of greater inclusivity and range? If the benefits of exams outweigh the drawbacks, what can we be doing to perfect exam culture and make any minor improvements? Regardless of how you identify in this debate, discussions of our schooling system are vital for keeping the education sector moving, and it is clear that assessment methods in schools will continue to be a topic of discussion and evolution for years to come.

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Ella Burgess

Ella is a content writer at Tutor House and explores a range of education centred topics, having previously spent time teaching English while living abroad. A foreign language enthusiast and lover of text art, she is devoted to words in all their forms. She'll happily immerse herself in anything wordy from conceptual art to vintage murder mysteries.

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