Is Easter Term too intense?

4 July 2011

Exams remain the best way to test a person’s knowledge argues, Juan Zober de Francisco

So you think exams are too stressful? Our exams may be stressful compared to other British universities, but earlier this month, 9.3 million Chinese students sat the gaokao, or National College Entrance Exam. Construction sites are shut at night for fear of disturbing revision and sleep, and during test days police are banned from using sirens. Traffic is diverted to give preference to vehicles delivering students to exam sites.

Despite this, 40% of gaokao test-takers fail. Results make or break a child’s future, and the stress routinely leads to suicides. Chinese media is filled with stories of people who have taken the same exams every year for decades and still fail.

The idea that we’re competing against friends from school who went to other universities across the country is absolute bullshit. Quit whining – it’s a globalised world, so competition is now on a global scale.

So you think exams have become obsolete? ‘Intelligence’ is an amorphous concept that cannot be defined, let alone objectively tested, you say? Well you’re right. But that’s no basis to scrap exams.

‘Intelligence’ is much like ‘potential’ – just as we ask ‘potential for what?’, so should we ask ‘intelligence for what?’ Exams test the ability of an individual to respond to an artificial environment where he or she is required to demonstrate the knowledge gained over the course of a degree.

This is important not because the information itself is useful (rarely is this ever the case), but because the processes involved in recollecting and applying that information is useful.

Take the ‘cosine rule’ that you learned at school. You’ll never need it again in your life – but the examination process, in which you had to sift through data from a question, sort out what was useful from the rest, recognise which rule needed to be applied and then use it correctly, is a process that you will need to repeat over the course of your life.

An exam tests this evaluation-recollection-application process in a way little else can. Hence exams remain, as they have done so for centuries, the chosen method of testing individuals.

So you think exams kill creativity? Well, what is the alternative? More coursework, modular examinations or portfolio submissions?

Most of Cambridge’s students demonstrate their creativity by participating in extra-curricular activities throughout the better part of the year when they’re not cramming for exams. Such a lifestyle would simply not be possible if we were subject to continuous assessment.

I’d rather have five weeks of hell in a three-year degree than have to be subject to continuous supervision – supervision that would make it impossible for me to spend weeks on end pursuing non-academic activities.

No – rest assured, exams are a necessary evil. Besides, Cambridge students, in a rare demonstration of enlightenment, have developed the perfect antidote to the Tripos – May Week

Juan Zober de Francisco is a student at King’s College

A less intensive and staggered assessment system is preferable says, Lianna Francis

Since you’ll probably be reading this two drinks down en route to your third garden party of the season, you probably don’t want to hear someone suggest that maybe May Week is not such a good idea after all. Well, fear not, because my beef is not with this peculiarly-Cambridge form of post-exam celebration, but with the very exams whose end you are currently toasting.

Everyone knows the standard arguments against the current exam system. It favours people who work better under timed conditions, it’s too subjective, and of course there’s the fact that the Cambridge experience is stressful enough without having the whole future of your degree hanging upon one hectic fortnight. My main opposition to the current exam-term/May Week structure is, however, based not on these valid reasons, but on its simple impracticality.

Okay, so there are going to be one or two times in life when a massive focus on a crucial deadline will be followed by a couple of nights of all-out partying, but this won’t usually be the case.

In the ‘real world’ of employment (which university is supposed to be preparing us for, right…?) effort and concentration are required at a much more constant rate. No employer is going to want a worker who’s only on the ball for just a few weeks a year, so why does the Cambridge system reward successful crammers rather than those who are more generally prepared?

The fact that post-grad students are not expected to display their year’s research in a few condensed three-hour chunks seems to highlight the fact that there are better ways to measure academic prowess. Modular examinations throughout the year? More ‘coursework’ or portfolio submissions? Considering the fuss we make about the personal nature of the Cambridge supervision system, is it not sensible to give supervisor reports at least some influence over your final grade average?

I know how easy it will be for the so-minded to refer to any such changes as a ‘dumbing down’ of the education system, but this is hardly the case. In reality the move would be more about bringing Cambridge’s tradition of scholastic success in line with the needs of the modern job-market.

Preparing for exams does teach you about hard work, but there are better ways to learn the same lesson. Look at any third year two days before their dissertation deadline and you’ll know from the pale skin and eye bags that they’ve been working hard, so why can’t a greater proportion of the Cambridge degree course be measured in the same way?

Ask your parents or anyone else in regular employment whether they got their jobs based on their ability to remember a few facts they learnt about ten months beforehand. I know ‘transferable skills’ is a cliché we all love to hate, but  it does seem that for £9000 a year students should at least be picking up some valuable experience.

So don’t get me wrong; I love punting and Pimms as much as the next person – I just don’t see why we are only supposed to enjoy them as a reward for surviving an increasingly obsolete exam system.

Lianna Francis is a student at Murray Edwards College