Why exams aren’t smart


Exams – don’t you just love ‘em? I did. I was very bad at passing exams during my teen years but I scraped the requisite grades to get into university. Then I realised what the examiners wanted, organised myself to remember what was wanted in each subject, and dutifully delivered it in a high-pressure ejection chamber known as an examination hall over a period of 2-3 hours. 

I don’t want to take away from the happiness of those who’ve scored high in the ‘A’ levels recently: it’s not often pure joy enters your life, and it’s a delight to watch all that youthfulness hopping around on TV hugging each other and grinning so hard their faces are in danger of splitting. Or sometimes even crying for joy. But exams don’t measure intelligence, which involves creativity, originality, a delight in the subject. Exams indicate that you’re a highly-organised plodder.

George Bernard Shaw warned sixth-formers that they must never tell the examiner what they think in an examination – they must tell the examiner what the examiner thinks. Examiners are usually men and women who learnt about their subject twenty, thirty years ago; and given that knowledge changes and is added to with alarming speed in modern times, you’d better supply some dated information in that examination hall, not what your young mind is thinking or aware of. If you do, you’ll upset the examiner.

I know. I’ve been an examinee and an examiner in my time, and both are ignoble positions to be in. I’ve also been an invigilator, patrolling the exam hall to make sure that nobody is engaged in any form of co-operation with anyone else during the two/three-hour high-pressure release of information. It’s hard to think of any comparison other than a prison, with the warder moving past cell after cell, taking a quick glance to see no hanky-panky is happening. As  that well-known educational philosopher Paul Simon sang: “When I think of all the crap I learnt in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all”.  In time to come, I’m convinced, people will  look back on the exam system and it’ll seem as weird and ridiculous as sending children up chimneys and covering the legs of pianos in case they excited lascivious thoughts.

So maith sibh – well done to all the young people who hit the highs when the exam marks came out the other day. But a word of consolation to those who hit the middle mark or the bottom: you haven’t really been tested at all.  Life will do that.

4 Responses to Why exams aren’t smart

  1. TheHist August 16, 2014 at 8:51 am #

    I remember an old politics lecturer at Uni, Dr Mick Lemon often state “why worry about exams … Go in and show off all your knowledge and what you have learned … Impress me.” I’ve often found myself passing on the same message!!!!!

  2. paddykool August 16, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    Well, Jude , you’ll not get me arguing about any of that As you say , life itself will be the real educator and it will throw some mighty weird curves.As you say , it is mostly the plodders and the crammers who manage to pass the exams and who then enter university unprepared socially to deal with it.Too much time at the books and not enough time learning to be a rounded human being.
    Exams and passing them are a bit like a magician learning a trick. Now, of course , not everyone is good at doing tricks or has the inclination to learn them, especially in their youthful years when there are more pressing pressures , like raging hormones , to deal with. It’s rare to find a teacher who can really fire up the imagination anyway and actually teach someone how to think for themselves. Teachers like that are not made either . They are “artists” in their own right. They are rare birds and anyone who is fortunate enough to encounter one will learn how to educate themselves.
    So you’ll find that many who garner university degrees are ….not to put a fine tooth on it … bloody stupid ! It appears to be getting even worse now when we see a generation …more and more of them…leaving university with degrees and no basic numerative or literary skills .A generation who cannot understand basic grammar or cannot count their change in their head. The idea of a degree has been devalued in any case and there will never be enough jobs to sate the inflated expectations that its granting bestows . We are looking at a lot of casual labourers with degrees now. There’s nothing wrong with that of course .Life and jobs are a lottery anyway.A mixture of luck and happenstance. In the end though . a lot of those who pass exams will be no more than one -trick ponies . It’s only natural to whoop and cheer when you feel like a winner , though …even though you haven’t really entered the race yet.

  3. michael c August 16, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    There’s far too much emphasis on degrees .Many graduates I know could’nt change a wheel.Intelligence can be displayed by people in everyday jobs with little formal education but who can perform tasks well beyond the capabilities of many people with doctorates.

  4. Perkin Warbeck August 16, 2014 at 11:39 am #

    Mention of exams brings PW back to the dim and d. days when he was known, yes, as ‘Perkin the Pedagogue’ and examinations were among the biggest beads on his bog-oak rosary. How he used to worry them! Them, of course, being his unfortunate students.

    A tad easier to be a distributor of exam papers than a distributee, for sure..

    One examination sticks in the revolving door of the memory bank. In the mid-Seventies one found oneself teaching the Q’s English (and also Meteorological Studies) in a Girls’ Secondary School (the only one) on Shara Omar-el Muktar in Tripoli, the capital city of the then Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. That would have been when Gadaffi was God.

    One lunch break, during the month of end of term examinations there was a certain fluttering over the plates of kus-kus in the dovecote that was the Staff Room. A certain external student was due in the next day to sit her English exam and nobody, but n., wanted to be the invigilator (that’s posh for supervisor) in that particular classroom. Most of the teachers, incidentally, were Egyptian.

    In the end, there was only one volunteer, none other than PW, never one to shirk a challenge, who agreed to do the job provided he was to be designated ‘invigilator’ rather than ‘supervisor’ . This was on the unspoken basis of what’s the point of being a Warbeck if one cannot indulge one’s poshness from time to t.?

    One could have sworn that one heard someone mutter ‘See you later, invigilator’ as one headed down the corridor, laden down with the Q’s English examination papers to the classroom where external student Fatiha al-Nuri was waiting. Despite the name she did not hail from Banbridge Town in the County Down though she was a star pupil of sorts in her own external way.

    ‘How will I know her?’ I had asked. ‘She’ll be the student seated below the Poster of General Gadaffi’. There was one such large poster in every classroom. I don’t recall much of the paper except there was one question along the lines of ‘What do you think made Shylock such a villain?’. The Shakespeare play, incidentally, on that year’s curriculum, and every year’s c. indeed, was ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Alas, being a mere invigilator I never did get to read Fatiha al-Nuri’s answer to that specific question.

    Nowadays, one’s invigilatory instincts tend to be spent examining, with the eye beady born of years at the chalk face, the likes of the lofty Letters Column of The Unionist Times. And one’s language subject is not the Q’s English these days but rather that of Leprechaun. (Though Meteorological Studies remains a constant).

    Surprisingly enough, one’s inner D.O.G. can be heard to growl more often than simper. (That would be one’s inner Darby O’Gill, of course). Examination results are in the air these days, none more so, as ever, than the results of the Compulsory Leprechaun papers. (For aesthetic reasons, PW prefers the more outré term: Mandatory Mahogany Gaspipes).

    Leprechaun, of course, is the only language in the w., which has the C-adjective permanently attached to it, like it was born with the port wine stain in the ogham-shape of ‘Compulsory’ imbedded on its forehead. It can indeed be even construed as reminiscent of the compulsory cloth patches of yellow the Jews were compelled to sew on their outer garments back in the dirty Thirties.

    Take this letter in today’s TUT which ends with the question rhetorical: ‘Can the foam-lipped ideologues of Irish please stand down’.

    It ought to be noted that TUT quaintly insists on using ‘Irish’ as a synonym for ‘Leprechaun’ and variously – gaeilgeoir, gaelgore, gaeligeoir, galegeor, gailgoeir etc etc etc – there being, oddly, no fixed spelling set in stone for this stone age lingo. Though PW’s favourite is the impish ‘gailygore’ which was obviously coined by some mischievous copy editor with a liking for G.K. Chesterton who wrote, of course, about the Gaels thus: ‘all their wars were happy/ and all their songs were sad’.

    What is wrong, incidentally, with referring to the speakers of Leprechaun as plain ‘leprechauns’ with a lower case l?

    PW suspects – nothing stronger, mind – that it may even have to do with PC. For TUT is the go-to publication, is it not, when it comes to Political Correctness having as it does, its presiding guru, the Panjandrum of PC , none other than Fintan O Toole himself.

    FOT is also known, variously, as the Maharajah of Mensa who is the reigning brain in a country of Untouchable Densas.

    Undoubtedly he does posses the highest IQ in the Free Southern Stateen. Witness the eminently justifiable naming of its highest mountain in his honour , Coarauntoohil which, curiously enough is the Hiberno-English equiv of ‘Corran Tuathail’ in the original Leprechaun: O’Toole’s Sickle.

    Apt name, indeed. For no better man than Fintan the Fine (no Gael, mind) to swish, slash and slice away any hint of the non-PC in TUT with his trademark sickle. Every time is harvest time in TUT. Indeed, as ‘Tuathail’ can be construed as ‘Lefty.’ he has been known to hammer away with his ciotog/left hook at opponents of PC when his sickle is being sharpened, having been blunted by over use.

    Occasionally though (and the above line quoted from today’s letter column of TUT is an example) like the summit of the eponymous mountain Fintan the Fine’s head might be covered in clouds of PC,. i.e., Precipitation-based Cumulonimbus. Hence, the odd though perfectly understandable lapse when it comes to the Leprechaun.

    Let nobody now doubt that PW was, is and hopefully, always will be a master of Meteorological Studies.

    (Housekeeping: forgot to mention that Fatiha al-Nuri had been the first wife of General Gadaffi but had divorced him when he had asked her permission to marry a second wife. That happened when he, as General, was in hospital and fell for the cutie who nursed him. He had his appendix taken out at that time, though many years were to pass before the, erm, generality of his person was, erm, taken out).