Undergraduate education: the third degree
At present, A-level students are robotically completing past papers to make sure they can answer every single question written in every single exam. Teachers will be preaching the gospel that is “exam technique”. Pupils must be able to tick all the examiner’s boxes. I still remember preparing for my A-level Maths exams and completing the same question about 4 times on the day of the exam. I had no idea what I was doing, nor what it meant, I was simply memorizing steps that I could replicate in the exam. Needless to say, this strategy paid off and I was rewarded with 90%+ . Arguably, standardized testing is the best way of leveling the playing field given there is such a great disparity in teaching quality between state and private schools. In spite of this, as I made the transition from school to university, I began to ask myself- “is this what education is really about?”. The superficial nature of secondary education has long been a topic of debate. Year-on-year improvements in exam results can be juxtaposed with excessive “teaching to the exam” and 49% of the adult population demonstrating numeracy levels no better than the average 11 year old. Unfortunately, the same criticisms can be made of higher education.
Considering that exams comprise around 80% of formal assessment for most university courses, what is it that university exams actually test? When it comes to extended response questions, awarding an objective mark to a subjective piece of work can prove problematic. In an ideal world, for any piece of work or exam, a marker would make a justified decision in accordance to grade descriptors on a paper-by-paper basis. In spite of this, given that undergraduates are a secondary focus for the majority of academics, it is a natural tendency for markers to award marks on the basis of a checklist system as opposed to the strength of argument presented.
If one script has included something on the checklist that another has omitted, it will be awarded a higher mark even though the latter candidate may have elected to omit the detail for a perfectly legitimate reason. All too often, I find myself writing what is expected of me as opposed to writing what I believe to be correct. Frustratingly, as one of a hundred candidates, there is no scope to challenge the accepted view or, indeed, the question itself. Naturally, the necessity to tick as many boxes as possible in an exam means that quantity most definitely takes precedence over quality. Exams are thus so time pressured that original thought is not even a possibility. For subjective exam questions, the ability to write quickly is a considerable determinant of your mark.
Whilst this may be more applicable in courses that do not fall neatly in either the “arts” or “sciences” categories, the superficial nature of the marking system is not conducive to promoting depth of knowledge. In an attempt to feign a detailed understanding of the relevant academic literature, students may only read the abstract of a journal before including a tenuous reference to this in their exam. Since it is impossible for a marker to cross-reference every single paper, a student will get credit for this. What incentive is there for a student to engage with their subject if others are awarded the same mark after cramming for a two-week period before exams? Time after time, students are rewarded for “good presentation” whilst genuine academic interest and intellectual rigor are often overlooked. In the past, I have written essays that have been marked strictly on a checklist system. Points were awarded, almost in a literal sense, for ticking boxes.
Ultimately, there is little incentive for a university to implement sufficient checks and balances to ensure that grades are “just” (see here). A superficial system of exams has placed an all-consuming emphasis on exam technique and ticking boxes. Today’s undergraduates are not encouraged to think for themselves and are therefore incapable of doing so. In science based subjects, if a student is presented with a problem that does not appear in a format they have seen previously, they will struggle to solve it. This is the problem with over-standardization of exams and a lack of focus on learning from first-principles. The entire education system promotes a mechanical approach to learning. Surely this isn’t what education is really about?