What does your exam mark really mean?

Will Amor 15 May 2014

What is an exam?

Or, more precisely, what does a high score for your essay actually mean? Long past are the days where there was a very well defined mark scheme, where if you used full stops AND commas you got a level 4, and if you threw in a couple of cheeky semi-colons you were right up there in level 5. This kind of ‘right answer’ exam still exists in the sciences at undergraduate level, which is either a source of envy for arts students who wish for a more straightforward exam, or a source of relief that BS is still the primary skill being examined.

There do, of course, exist mark schemes for the arts, but they are qualitative rather than quantitive; a First class essay may display ‘work that is excellent both in the range and command of the material covered and in argument and analysis’, while an Upper Second simply ‘shows a good broad-based knowledge of the topic, presented in an organised way’. But where is the line between ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ drawn? All the while appreciating the time and teaching given? In a word, it is an arbitrary line.

While I have no doubt that examiners are earnestly trying to mark scripts, I cannot help but feel that they are at least partially randomly assessed. This is admittedly hard to avoid when marking criteria include descriptors like this; ‘shows unquestioned mastery of the topic and confidence in the exposition.’

In what light ought one thus understand an exam score? One way to consider this question is to look what happens to work as it progresses up the academic ladder. Your undergraduate essays get you a bachelor’s (later master’s) degree, while a graduate essay allows you to call yourself ‘Doctor’. After that, however, your work is published and reviewed, rather than marked per se. Reading your supervisors’ reviews can be pretty enlightening, especially Amazon reviews.

This is how I contend we understand exam scores: not as definitive description of your quality as a critical thinker, but rather as a review of what you produced. And of course, we know that some reviews are good, such as the conscientious review of the Daily Mail’s Caesarian Sunday coverage, and some reviews are bad, such as anyone who said that Avatar was in any way a good film. Hitchcock’s masterful film Vertigo received some scathing reviews upon its release, but is now considered one of the best films of all time.

So write your essay on The Faerie Queene with the confidence that your examiner might be as mistaken as to its magnificence as Hitchcock’s contemporary reviewers.