The Problem with Tests and Exams

Updated: Sep 14

It's that time of the academic year again. The drawing conclusion of an annual workload. A time when thousands of students around the country are sitting examinations in subjects they've studied all semester or year, whether these be at secondary school or university.


The problem with this is that, in my opinion, exams and indeed the education system, quite simply don't work in today's modern age.


I know you probably read that and thought "Oh god, here we go. Another moaning, impulsive, millennial posting about how they have to do something they don't want to". But as someone who worked pretty hard at school, I still disagree, and must question what is the ultimate aim in using them?

Person studying with a pencil in hand
Why do we assume the exam system is effective?

My interpretation is that exams are there to quantitatively measure how much knowledge a student has "learned" over a certain time period. This data is then used to rank students against one another to effectively see who knows the subject material the most.


Now, in theory that all sounds just so wonderful and lovely. So naturally, I have major issues with it.

Here's why I disagree:


  1. It's dated and irrelevant to today's world

  2. It kills creativity and is subjective

  3. The grading system is flawed

  4. There's minimal real-life worth


Irrelevance to Today's World

I mean this just seems like a given. The questions I hear crop up time and time again around exam time is, "What's the point of making us memorise all this? Under what situation in the real-world would we not have Google?". And whilst I don't 100% agree with this sentiment (I believe there are times where you really do need to know your sh*t right in the moment i.e. if I ever had heart surgery, I'd be a little edgy if the surgeon had to keep pausing to have to look at what tool they need to use next), they're really not far off the mark.


Today, exams are still used to ensure that students "remember" facts, quotes, statistics and knowledge. Just a couple of weeks ago, I sat a couple of Psychology exams where the questions were entirely short-answer/essay questions that required writing about very specific, unknown topics covered from the semester. This meant rote-learning on the contingency that a question might pop-up so that you can just regurgitate that knowledge onto a piece of paper. The whole course was to be potentially examined meaning we were asked to memorise 36 hours worth of content that only a handful of questions would be asked on.

Exam room with students studying
The painful nostalgia of these exam halls

The problem with this method is that it doesn't teach the application of knowledge to a situation, and instead, rewards students who are best when it comes to photographic memorising. Furthermore, the information is virtually redundant after the course and bears no future significance. There's no way I could tell you what I learned a semester ago, let alone an entire three years prior at the start of my degree. Not only this, but it doesn't truly examine the breadth of an individual's knowledge - it's just what they know at that particular pinpoint in time.


Whilst you might argue "but Alex, that was just from one subject - they're not all like that", you'd be partially correct. But over the past three years at university (and three more years at high school before that), I've studied a whole range of subjects and this is still the most common means of examining students. All my peers I have spoken to, have similar thoughts.



The Death of Creativity and Being Subjective

This is absolutely the case for arts-based subjects or those that involve essay writing. When it comes to books, films, literature, poems, paintings, dance and more, the whole point of these art forms is to express emotion, encourage outside thinking, and promote creativity. How does the education system facilitate this when it slaps an arbitrary marking rubric on what's perceived to be a "right" or "wrong" interpretation?

Immersing creativity with lightbulb-moment ideas
Whether you're good at it or not, creativity propels innovation and new ideas.

For instance, I'm a massive fan of films. I love watching them, dissecting them and gaining a sense of deeper meaning from them. But quite often these meanings (and indeed the directors intentions) are subjective and/or ambiguous to the audience. And that's the beauty of it! I believe some of the best conversations I've had, have stemmed from people's different understandings of films and indeed the wider variety of art.


However, you tell someone that they're incorrect for "not getting the end of Inception" and you're immediately punishing them for seeing the film in a different sense to you. In the broader academic sense, it's the same as marking someone down for having their own opinion or trying something new (i.e. I dare you to not italicise a journal number in APA referencing). One student's writing style might be far more casual and humourous than another but we force them to be formal and proper so as to stick to "the rules".


Obviously creativity might not appear to impact everything like engineering or the medical sciences, though arguably these academic forms may benefit from new blood. But it draws questions as to why we try and promote the education system as an excuse to selfishly profit from the creative workers of tomorrow.



A Flawed Grading System

This is certainly the case at the University of Auckland, but to me it seems that students take bad grades (even if it's just one!) and a low GPA extremely personally. This is semi-understandable as it seems like a direct criticism on the amount of work you've put in.


But here's my question: what actually constitutes a "bad" grade?


Think of it this way, if 0% represents your work being a toilet and 100% is a perfect masterpiece - then what's halfway meant to be? Supposedly, the answer is average. But it's not average is it? If you get below 50% you've failed that paper and you feel rubbish about yourself. And a 60% feels like a punch in the gut when actually this should classify as "above average".

A table of grades
Are grades really everything?

So why are we using this system? Well, it's to give employers and the university a criteria to compare people against. But now ponder this: there isn't a universal criteria that all universities abide by and different countries use alternative systems. In the UK, more universities are presenting their own students with a First Class Honours than ever before to make them more employable and boost their own statistics, thus furthering their own reputation.


All-in-all, this doesn't exactly appear that the number/grade against a name bears much worth. And if the system that you're meant to be comparing students on doesn't work, why use it in the first place?


The other thing about grading is the sheer value in constructive criticism. I feel like we need to be better at teaching and communicating this, rather than using it as an excuse to feel personally attacked but that's for another blog post...


And finally...



Minimal Real-Life Worth

So after all you've sat through all those exams, and been so committed to getting good grades, that's surely got to guarantee you the job of your dreams right? Well no...not really.


See, I'm becoming increasingly aware that employers are not totally bothered on what grades you get. Your grades at high school are only useful to get into university in the first place and then become redundant off your CV two years later. Similarly with university, they sometimes help you get your first job (but then, so too can experience) and then it's entirely off what you achieved in that job.

Woman at work pointing at screen
Another stock image of someone being told to look like they're working

I'm not a total critic though - I do think there is value in the education system here. It can teach you good habits and soft skills (time management, organisation etc.) early on to help you get through (though some would struggle to have these nailed by their last year). Those you learn at high school help lay the foundations for university and those at university guide you further into the workforce and so on.


I just have serious grievances with the attitudes of those who are obsessively hung up on achieving good grades like they are the most crucial thing in their lives. They're not. And I firmly believe that failure and experience are skills that will teach you far more.



Alright, shut up moaning. What's your alternative?

Great question, I'm so glad you asked! I've got several ideas on this but this blog post is already long enough so I'll explain it more in my next one...


In the meantime, let me know what your thoughts are on the education system. Did any of the above make you question the education system we so often take for granted? Do you firmly disagree with any of the points above? Either way, I'd love to hear from you so comment below or feel free to get in touch.

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