The unavoidable injustice of exams
Exams are unfair; but it’s still wrong to cheatBy John Ryle • 14 September 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Posted 2016 • 864 words
Exams are arbitrary and unfair. If you’re lazy and stupid you’ll probably fail; if you’re clever and work hard—and don’t crack up—you probably won’t. Between those two extremes, though, a lot is down to character and chance. Certain kinds of intelligence have difficulty displaying themselves to advantage in the examination hall, while others find their form. Thus timed examinations are liable to discriminate against intelligent students who are absorbed in their subject in favour of canny students who concentrate on learning how to pass exams. Exams may promote the fluent and glib over the deep and thoughtful, the single-minded over the many-faceted, the fox over the hedgehog.
All of these different forms of intelligence are forced into a linear grading system that cannot, by definition, do justice to the different kinds of intellectual aptitude that students—and people in general—possess. Two weeks of non-stop examinations after three or four years of study—which remains the established practice at a good number of British universities—represent a sudden change of pace, a stressful and disconcerting episode which stimulates some examinees while others are disoriented or defeated.
And that’s the point. Exams are arbitrary, stressful and unfair. As life is. So, students, welcome to the world. Unlike most of what happens at university examinations really are a preparation for life. They are a rite of passage. Instead of body scarification or military conscription, as practised at other times and in other societies, we have exams. To survive them is to enter, at least potentially, the professional middle classes. You could try going to live in the wilderness for forty days and nights instead, or kill a lion with your bare hands, but most employers would not recognise this as a qualification.
How you respond to the stress of examinations can reveal more about you than a dozen dissertations. Whether you stay up all night revising and fall asleep in the examination hall. Whether you cop some drugs and hope they help. Whether you make yourself ill with worry and take your exams in hospital. Whether you resign yourself to fate and just cope. Or whether you cheat.