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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Are We Failing When it Comes to School Exams?

Once upon a time, I had the opportunity to complete a Masters degree in Theology and Education. The course was assessed on the basis of 8 essays, an extended thesis, and a written examination at the end.

It was 1994, yet my university professors already had the foresight to regard traditional examinations as little more than a single-day, somewhat unreliable, snapshot that prioritised performance under pressure over deep knowledge and mastery of a subject area. So they decided to release the questions a week in advance to allow us to do the research, consider our responses, and construct an argument.

Fast forward thirty years and I'm making one of my twin daughters a cup of coffee. It is 5am and we were both up late last night going over dozens of digital revision cards in preparation for today's end-of-school examination. If we focus, we'll get another two hours of revision before the examination begins, but time is running out and the tension is rising.

A old photograph of students taking exams

I ask another question and look at her in hope of a response. Tears are streaming down her face. Her eyes are red and swollen, betraying a mix of exhaustion and panic. It's the exact same look that she had a couple of days ago when she came home and told me that she missed 4 questions on her French paper after forgetting to turn over the page.

Apparently her experience is not unusual. Many of her friends are struggling too and have their own tales of tiredness-induced oversights and omissions. Many of them are also struggling to keep up with the pace and are living life on a diet of little sleep, tears, constant nervous energy, and Red Bull.

Today's examination is number 13 of the 15 that she is taking across a 2-week marathon. The culmination of 15 years of school has come down to 15 examinations across just over 15 days.

Of course, I'm not saying that this is the experience of school for every student. Just as there are elite athletes who make a marathon appear to be effortless, through a mix of genetic disposition and effective training, there will always be a handful of students who thrive under these pressurised conditions. Either through a relentless revision programme in the months and years before or a natural ability to recall vast quantities of content, the end-of-school exams are, at worst, for the lucky few, a moment of physical and academic exertion resulting in little more than a mild sweat.

My point, however, is that the student who thrives during examinations is not the norm. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this regime of examinations can, for some at least, be traumatic and have a lasting emotional and psychological impact. A study recently suggested that 48% of adults suffer from some form of so-called "Post Traumatic Exam Disorder", exhibiting a range of different anxieties from nightmares to fear of failure.

Ironically, when my university professors decided to reveal the questions on my Masters examination paper, it did not make the task easier. If anything I had to study harder, knowing that more would be required of me on the day. But I also knew that the stress of guessing where to put my energy was removed and that my overall success was spread across a two year period, as opposed to how I performed on one particular day.

And if my university professors were wise to this all those years ago, maybe it's finally time to revisit a set of high school systems that continue to equate rigor with the human ability to cram and regurgitate knowledge over the course of a 2-3 hour moment in time.

Or to look at it another way, I'm wondering how we can create moments at the end of a school career that celebrate performance and demonstrate understanding, mastery and literacy? Yes, the next few days will be full of smiles, but I imagine that many of these smiles will be relief that the ordeal is over, not pride in how far our students have traveled along the way.

P.S. My daughter gave me consent to tell her story today.

1 comment

1 Comment

Isabelle Faulkner
Isabelle Faulkner
May 22, 2023

🙋🏻‍♀️ I can so relate to the 48%. I'm in my 50s and still have nightmares about my uni exams! Trauma is real and stays for a long time even when you know it shouldn't affect you anymore. There is a great paper written by Conrad Hughes on the subject of assessment and learning:

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