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Articles > Student Life May, 24, 2014

Do exams fairly test ‘real-world’ intelligence?

Sam Dix
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8.43 / 10

The debate around the use of examinations for arts based subjects pops up this time every year then duly disappears just as the damned things themselves do; and this is half the problem.

Photo by Z. Smith Reynolds Library

A sustained argument on the waste of time that are arts and humanities examinations can never be had due to the general attitude of exams as a necessary evil, with many just glad to see them pass and to never have to think of them again.

But the idea of remembering sound bites, clumsily repeating them while constructing an argument that barely convinces you, is absurd and inconsistent with the method and structure of examination that occurs through the year, through essays, where there is a chance to develop an argument, research something heavily, tweak and modify an argument so it is something actually worth reading (you may even begin to enjoy it). But given that expectations are naturally lower in exams, due to the time pressures imposed (which seems to wholeheartedly defeat the objective) every exam answer is relative garbage.

Everyone’s is, it’s not your best work – how many exam papers have been quoted and referenced throughout history? I can’t imagine our greatest contributors to philosophy or literature ever producing their best work under time constraint, silence, boredom and isolation. Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ would have been a small stroll, and Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ nothing more than a short story of modest inheritance.

Exams are about as useful as placing a number of objects on a table, closing your eyes and getting a friend to move them a bit and then trying to guess what has changed. Surely a more sensible solution would be that of a set of essays around exam time in which you can fully research and write on a topic, allowing you to show off your writing ability in a more natural and useful manner. In what profession are you going to be required to remember bits of information which are then not available to you and then required to repeat it all in a timescale of a few hours?

For those who say exam time is the only time they truly learn because they have to remember: You are either lazy or wrong. Don’t try and convince anyone you’re learning grand theories and ideas in a two week cramming revision block pre-exams. It’s an exercise in sound bite accumulation, useful only for making unnecessary pretentious remarks or obstreperous observations to use in passing conversation in an attempt to prove your degree is ‘worth it’ – an attempt that will at most tease a polite nod before everyone hopes for a minor event to occur in order to divert attention.

To justify exams through the importance of ‘writing under pressure’ is such a vacuous and vague statement and raises the question of what ‘pressure’ is to be applied. Why not remove the time limit and just hand out BB guns to invigilators to sporadically shoot at random students? Why not? It’s just writing under pressure.

If you’re looking to produce intelligent and thoughtful academics that care and think deeply about their subject in order to then produce fine work of depth and intelligence then the method of testing doesn’t match up with the required outcome and it should change. I could go on, but times up.

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  1. Elizabeth Watson

    I agree. I also think that a lot of the GCSEs and A level lessons teach you to answer the questions not necessarily teach you the information. These exams are about answering the questions as they want them to be answered not on what you learn. However, with many of the subjects you have to learn the information to answer the questions but how much of the information is remembered after the exam has been taken? When in life (after uni or education etc) will you ever be forced to sit in silence and write under pressure?

  2. Mark

    Degrees have exams, you do exams to get in as this proves you can do an exam, which suggests you’ll do well on the degree course. Simple, means to the next step. How else would you suggest unis identify good potential students? There has to be a standardised way to compare academic potential and exams are it. While it doesn’t suit everyone, nothing ever will.

    If you don’t want to do a degree, why are you doing examined subjects post-GCSE? Complaining about the lack of point just because you didn’t find an alternative that will benefit you in the workplace gets no sympathy from me; you should’ve found something more worthwhile to you and it’s your own fault if you didn’t.

  3. Shawn Hiew

    I agree that exams do not churn out thoughtful, passionate compassionate and socially responsible people. However, in my experience, it has taught me that hard work pays off, it taught me determination and perseverance. Besides that, while studying for my Cambridge A-Levels, which is a purely exam based programme, I have actually learned useful things as I related the things I’ve learnt with daily occurrences in order to remember the bits of knowledge.

  4. Jessica Gomersall

    I agree with what people are saying, exams are necessary to improve skills and knowledge but some people crumble under the pressure of exams. Someone can do well all year in class but the pressure of exams is too much and they don’t end up with the results they want. For some subjects, the amount to learn and remember is extraordinary. Some exams require people to write a mark per minute which hardly gives a person time to think! Some even though exams give us results for college or uni, are they really worth the stress and pressure?

  5. Yasmin Taki

    In some ways, exams are a good way of testing a students ability to think for themselves and work under timed conditions. Furthermore, it gives a person the chance to gain both independence and organisation skills. However, how can we tell whether exams actually test a person knowledge or their memory? Many people argue that exams only actually test how well a person can remember dates, equations etc. But can this be beneficial for the future? Some may argue ‘yes’ however others feel that learning how to find the area of a circle (for example) will have no benefit to an individual in the real world what so ever. Therefore, why do they do exams?

  6. Samantha

    In some ways exams have their place. If used in the right way they ask students to prove their understanding of a topic. However, all too often they are a test of memory not understanding. I did a lawn based vocational course followed by the professional qualification. All to often exams asked me to essentially quote legislation, recalling details of legislation (including section numbers) and case law. Surely this is a test of memory not understanding. When I go out on site advising clients I don’t need to know this information instead I need to understand how to apply the law – and considering how frequently the law changes this can be a challenge. But you know what, I can take copies of legislation and guidance notes to refer to or advise the client that I will look into and get back to them. Based on this surely it would be better (in exams)to provide relevant pieces of information (such as the law) and ask students to interpret and apply the requirements to a situation – far more meaningful to my mind.

  7. Vicki Elliott

    My friend devoted her life to her exams in June by not doing anything other than revising from December on-wards. yet she placed so much importance on these exams she was destroyed when she got her results. Exams are only testing how well you perform in situations that are nothing alike real life. In the real world, you have a calculator, the internet, your colleagues. if you get stuck you can find a solution. whereas in exams there is only a right or wrong.

  8. Oli Coetzee

    I disappoint myself when I revise and get no better results than when I did no work at all, afraid to say I don’t have the “exam technique” that some do

  9. Maryam Khan

    but in some other subjects the ability to train yourself to remember and understand the in formation is very important as in science you need to learn and even memorise most points to understand the whole concept. for me essay writing is a big no-no as I would eventually get bored and I am a type of person where I need a question to follow on and not the type to search in depth and give my own opinion in a 5000 word essay. I like to summarise instead of elaborate really. so essay writing is not the way for every one

    • mark

      This is especially true in subjects such as mathematics, where you need to know and remember EVERY detail of a subject before you can use it to learn something else. This is a subject that continually builds on things you’ve already done, you really need to have a deep knowledge of each of the topics you’ve learnt before you can learn more. Exams therefore are a good measure in this case of how well you understand what you have learnt, and will stop you moving to more complex topics with a lack of knowledge if you fail.

      More to the point, the attendance at lectures is so poor that the exams are probably the only thing that makes most of the students bother to learn anything at all. It’s the kind of kick up the backside most students need to actually engage with the course.

      Even if you forget stuff after the exam (which we all do), at least you know it actually exists, and that you can look it up. Without loads of revision/practice, there’s no way you’d even remember half the stuff said in lectures. The element of not knowing what’s going to come up in an exam makes you study the whole subject, whereas when just doing coursworks you just look up whatever you need for that problem. Courseworks do have their place, but so do exams.

  10. Jasdeep Mondae

    I do think that for a handful of exams I have got ‘in the zone’ and produced some amazing essays that I would love to have back so that I can refer to them. However, most of the time, revision is boring and pointless and the exam essay is definitely not reflective of my actual work quality. It’s such a shame but essay writing is a bit of a skill that some people have and some people don’t – just like some people have a knack at exams and some people don’t. It is not really testing your ability at the subject, more if you have that skill. I prefer a mix of essay submissions and test-based essays – that seems to be a good mix for both types of students.

  11. Yes! This! I really don’t understand the merit of exams in this fashion. We are pushed to remember theorists names, studies done and link them effectively to all the other relevant studies. In what way is this like “real life” where the opportunity to research and make a coherent argument is not only available but encouraged. Who in the real world wants to read a report based on some half remembered facts that may or may not even make sense?

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