Are examinations really necessary?

2 July 1968

The main feature in Guild Gazette this week is a centre-page spread on what is currently the big issue in student activist circles – the question of the validity of exams.  Gerry Cordon’s article includes material from an interview with Tom Fawthrop, who visited Liverpool University this week to promote his attack on the exam system:

In any process of education, ability has to be assessed at some time. In recent years, however, the existing structure of the examination system in English universities, and its effects on the educational process, has been increasingly criticised.

The nervous strain which examinations cause is evident every summer. The same emotional problems recur year after year. Is it all worth it? Is the exam system really necessary – and if not, what is there to replace it?

To start with, how important are exams? For most students May and June is the crisis period of the year – it has been all through school and will remain so at university. A month before exams ‘university life – in all its aspects – has almost ceased to exist. Societies suspend meetings until further notice, club notices fail to appear, and everyone either drifts around looking drawn and withdrawn, or indulges in bouts of superficial frenzy in an attempt to convince everyone else that life isn’t getting them down.

A History/Politics student comments : “The system destroys creativity and originality which education is all about. You’ve got to cram all these un inspiring facts in to get the right percentage to get the right job. ”

This complaint is echoed and elaborated by a second-year student in Combined Studies: “The whole focus of the degree structure should be altered- in the Faculty of Arts, at least, far too much stress is put on the period before exams when you revise. So, in effect, you get your degree on the four topics you happen to write on in the exam.”

We asked Dr Markus, Senior Lecturer in the History Department, to comment on these criticisms. Dr Markus feels there should be more variety in the examination system, in the sense of providing more opportunities for projects during the term, more emphasis on essays and less reliance on the exam results themselves.

However, Dr Markus argues that, at Liverpool at least, exams are not the be-all and end-all of the years’ studies. “As tutors, we can usually tell by the end of the year just what kind of grade a student is likely to obtain in the exams. There is rarely a case where exam results conflict with the student’s showing in the year – and if this did occur the year’s work would be taken into account”.

Cartoon by Frank Milner

Regurgitation of lecture notes is not the purpose for which exams are set, argues Dr Markus.  Lectures are not designed to be geared to the exams at the end of the year, and to indulge in concentrated cramming in the last weeks before the exams is not the best way to make a good showing in them.

Does this then mean that exams are unimportant, perhaps expendable?

Dr Markus thinks not: “An important advantage of exams is the fact that they are impersonal. It is not the personal opinion of his tutor or lecturer which gives the student his degree classification. Great care is taken over the marking of examinations – each paper is assessed by several examiners.”

What justification can the defenders of the exam system offer against student criticisms like these:

“Exams discriminate against the slow writer, the bad writer, the person with nerves, and give an unfair advantage to those who have a good rote memory. I’d like to see the system totally abolished and to be examined on work done throughout the year – essays, projects, that sort of thing – if university is to be a true dialogue between teacher and student.”

“The system presumes assessment is necessary- but even presuming this is so, exams don’t assess relevant factors.”

We found three major defences of the exam system. Firstly, many pragmatists argue that creativity is not the sole criterion in assessing a university education. It may be unfortunate, but it is a fact that most students are coming to university with the attitude that to get a degree opens the way to a secure and highly-paid job. In this situation, employers find the possession of a degree the most practical method of demonstrating that a particular individual knows a relevant body of fact. An institution like a university, it is argued, cannot cut itself off from the society that sustains it.

A second defence concerns the criticism that the time factor is artificial and restrictive. Dr. Markus accepts this: “Exams are artificial; but they do seem to be a reliable and accurate method of assessing ability.”

Others argue that it is an important intellectual exercise to test the ability of a student to work out a problem in a certain time. As Dr Morgan, lecturer in Politics, puts it : “the ability to work under simulated crisis.”

Finally, perhaps the most popular defence of the system – even with students: It makes students work. Some students are scared of the idea of continuous assessment through the year’s essays and tutorials. Some tutors feel they know some students too well to feel that abolishing the spur of exams is advisable. Exams make people read and think where otherwise they might not have done so, their apologists argue.  Enthusiasm is often not enough – and students who do not do themselves justice in an exam are very few.

Another student to whom Gazette spoke sums up the argument: “I think it’s rubbish about only those who write fast or remember facts doing well in examinations, because I think it will be found that performance in exams does reflect the amount of work done during the year. The rare exception is not sufficient case against a system which has been tried and tested.”

The case against exams does not rest solely on the complaint that exam results might be unfair to a student who works well throughout the year. More wide-ranging criticisms can be made of their effects on the educational process and the student-tutor relationship. A survey of the arguments used against the examination system revealed the following major criticisms of exams and their effects:

  1. Exams inflict needless strain upon students. The fear of exams and the disgrace of failure may well account for many of the suicides, breakdowns and lesser nervous ailments occurring among students.
  2. Health, emotional, or merely temperamental factors may give a student an off day,harming his showing in the results list. A poor range of questions, or a bad choice on the student’s part may again affect the result with little regard to his capabilities.
  3. The examination procedure itself is artificial. It is argued that the time factor is harmful: it restricts the development of ideas in an essay, and encourages stereotyped, often scrappy works. Similarly the absence of reference sources contributes little to the to the possibility of a good essay. Instead, it means a student must learn facts by rote, and thus the importance of facts is exaggerated at the expense of interpretation and originality.
  4. Exams assess a student’s ability, but do they assess the right things ? It is argued that exams merely test the ability to remember large amounts of facts – with deadening, uninspiring effects.
  5. From this it follows that the exam system should be replaced by one which takes  greater cognisance of originality and individuality, which encourages the student to find his own intellectual paths, and which does not restrict him to a  preordained, ‘package course’ likely to turn out stereotyped historians, sociologists, physicists, or whatever.
  6. This leads directly to the argument that the examination system is the unfortunate result of the present educational structure. Exams would cease to be defensible if it was accepted that students and tutors should participate equally in the education process, that lecturers and tutors should not be mere 19th century monitors handing out assimilated information, but, rather, catalysts in the intellectual development of the student.

The classic statement of the case against examinations comes from Tom Fawthrop, politics and sociology student at Hull University. Fawthrop found himself on the front pages of the national dailies a month ago after he tore up his examination paper and walked out during finals.

“This was a moral imperative,” he said. “Having condemned the system and involved myself in a campaign against exams, it would have been to divorce theory from practice not to have made a stand.”

Fawthrop attacks the examination system in his book, Education or Examination? His criticisms concern the nature of education, the position of  the individual in the system and the relationship between student and teacher.

“Exams are more a matter of luck than judgement”, Fawthrop maintains.  “Actually doing a question in forty minutes  – it’s not an intellectual exercise. If you can do it in 40 minutes the essay isn’t worth doing”.   ln other words, can three years’ work be adequately assessed twelve or fifteen hours of exams? Critics of the system argue that it does not allow for the possibility of creativity and originality which a genuine educational process should seek to encourage.

Fawthrop comments: “Students aren’t really participating in the learning process – lecturers churn out notes and students feel obliged to digest them for the exams. It all leads to a kind of intellectual indigestion.”

“A socially undemocratic system” – that’s how Fawthrop describes the politics of examination. Students, he says, are not consulted over the purpose or aims of examinations: there is no justification given for the system.

It was a reaction against the authoritarian character of the university educational process which constituted the basis of the recent protests, not only at Hull but also at Hornsey. The philosophy of the protest would run something like: ‘We are not going to take the exams until you, the tutors and lecturers, can satisfactorily justify the system which you operate’. It was this kind of reasoning which led students at Hornsey College of Art to first demonstrate about, and then to take over and reorganise, the educational system in their college.

In a statement issued by the Association of Members the college students declared that. “We are demonstrating that it is entirely possible for a body of students to take over and properly organise in co-operation with our tutors a curriculum which individual needs are no longer subordinated to a predetermined system of education requiring a degree of specialisation which precludes the broad development of the student’s artistic and intellectual capacities. We aim to prove that the reputation of the college and the quality of the work the students produce can only advance further in an atmosphere of democratic cooperation and mutual respect between the students themselves, their tutors, and the authorities whose duty it is to provide the means for further education.”

Here the criticism of exams broadens out into a general distrust of the present educational structure. The threat of year-end exams and the judgement imposed by their results sets up an unwanted authority relationship between students and staff. Students, it is argued, should be regarded as equals so that learning and discussion can be spontaneous and uninhibited by authority.

Dr B Morgan, lecturer in Politics, discounts this form of criticism. There is no question, he says, of an inhibiting authority relationship between student and tutor. “We are all equals; the only element of differentiation is time – tutors are further along the course of study than the students.”

Dr Morgan raised another problem relating to the examination system, particularly to the disorganisation in the timetabling this year. The ever-increasing complexity of academic courses, hc pointed out, is bound to increase administrative difficulties. The answer might be to reduce the number of options available.

Again this raises the question of the relationship between the student and those who teach him. Critics of the exam system argue that it encourages this kind of intellectual restriction, involving the channeling of the student into a combination of courses he may not desire.

Dr Markus of the History department argued strongly any such tendencies towards reducing the options available to students. ”If this began to happen I would be manning the barricades myself!”

Registrar's announcement of the University's response to the exams chaos.

In most universities written, time-limited examinations remain the chief method of assessment.  But at York, a break has been made with tradition.  There a student-staff committee exists to consider the problems of examinations and assess the various alternatives.

The result is that students in most faculties can choose, within limits, the way in which they would like to be assessed. The English department, under Professor Brockbank, has proved to be the most go-ahead department in the country in the matter of examinations an assessment.

Three methods of assessment are in use at present at York.

  1. The traditional method of examination by three-hour papers. But even this is not completely orthodox at York, for an effort is made to phase the exams over a longer period of time rather than forcing them into a few days or a week.
  2. The most common method used at York  is the prepared examination. Students in many departments are given the question  paper 14 days before the actual exam sitting, and can prepare the work in any way they wish, including libraries,  tutors, or any other information source.
  3. Finally, in the English department which  has been the most adventurous and progressive in this field, there is the possibility of  doing no more than two or three papers, even in the finals. Written examinations are purely voluntary and are replaced by  year-long assessment and a long essay of about 20,000 words.

This system is at present in an experimental stage (York University is itself only five years old) and the students doing finals now will be the first to go through the progressive system.

Asked to comment on the success of the system, York President John Taylor felt more time was needed before a realistic judgement could be made.  “Certainly most students in the English department are happy with the far greater emphasis on three-year assessment.”  He pointed out that some students still choose to sit formal exams: “It’s a question of temperament; some students are incapable of doing well unless they have an exam.  But here at least the choice is theirs.”

Another article in this issue of Guild Gazette is headlined, ‘Free University in the Liverpool Union’:

Tom Fawmrop will be one of the main speakers at the Free University now in progress on the Liverpool Campus. Mr Fawthrop is the politics and sociology student at Hull renowned for his bitter opposition to university examinations.

Among the other guest speakers due to appear are Arthur Dooley (sculptor), Adrian Mitchell (poet), and Joe Martindale and Keith Jackson (lecturers in sociology).

The idea for a Free University originated in response to the success of the Anti-Universities in London and abroad, while student demonstrations all over the world have pointed the way towards a reassessment of certain key issues. It was felt that the term ”Anti-University” might alienate the more conservative students and staff.

As it is invitations have been sent to leading academics and artists at every university to discuss subjects of political, social, and economic importance. For instance the Slant Group led by Dom Sebastian Moore will be discussing “Politics and Love-making”, while Dennis Gould, the poet, will lecture on “Revolutionary Non-Violent Action and Militant Pacifism.”

The seminar-type discussions, which will make up this “frankly experimental project”, will be held in the Union until July 14th. Its success will only be guaranteed if students participate actively.

Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

4 thoughts on “Are examinations really necessary?”

  1. In my oppinion, the present exam. system all over the world bring the students dull and boring. In the life of the stuents many faculties are there which is neglected by most of the universities. Only 25% of the capacity of a student can be evaluated by exam.

  2. to who ever this may concern : i am a fifth form student who is currently preparing for an examination that is soon about to come, and i must say that im terrified if i should not succeed. i guess my point is that i totally agree with the above statement argued by most resource persons…… what can i say,today im writing an essay based on this similar topic “EXAMINATIONS ARE UNFAIR AND SHOULD BE REPLACED BY CONTINUOUS ASSESMENT”

    1. Good luck with your essay – and exams in the future. The only thing to be said in favour of exams is that they force you to think and write under ‘crisis’ conditions. Which is what you can be faced with having to do in many (though far from all) jobs.

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