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Exams are no use in essay-based subjects


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Exam season in full swing across the country, whether that be at university, college or school. Libraries are full to the brim and stress levels for many are through the roof.

Image: Rune Mathisen via Flickr

Exams are an integral part of our education system. They are constant throughout childhood, and if you choose to go to university like myself, this journey continues. They are typically accepted as being the most effective way of testing your knowledge of a subject.

But my experience of exams over recent years - particularly at A-Levels and university  - has led me to  believe the opposite. As a history undergraduate at the University of Sheffield, the experience is of essay-based subjects, and I understand that in certain subjects where there is a right and wrong answer exams are most definitely the most suitable form of assessment. 

As a history student I essentially read a lot of books and articles, get lectured on periods of history, discuss ideas and readings in seminars, and then complete assessments on the respective modules. My two years at university so far have consisted of three modules a term. So far, I have completed ten modules and I am soon to complete the final two, when I sit my exams next month. In addition to my exams, which occur at the end of each set of modules and consist of answering two essay questions in time conditions, I have completed several non-timed essays that formed the other part of the assessment criteria.

I have no issue with the number of assessments I have to complete. However, I do have an issue with the form they take. Since the outset of my first assessment, it has been instilled that in order to achieve top marks (first class standard) my essays must be well argued providing a perceptive response to the question with clear references to literature, in addition to displaying independent thought and critical thinking. Non-timed essays to these criteria present a true challenge and test of knowledge and my own historical understanding, and I am able to present a piece of work which I am proud of.

In contrast, I find exams to be the complete opposite, and not a true reflection of all the skills and knowledge I have learnt. Under timed conditions essays that would otherwise be critical and perceptive become little more than a piece of descriptive writing with no original or independent thought, and without references to create a nuanced debate. This ultimately leads to something which I would dare not write in any other form of assessment.

In non-timed essays you spend weeks crafting a response; you spend hours in the library finding primary and secondary sources, composing a bibliography of notable length. You spend hours crafting pieces, for then the remaining percentage of your grade to be dictated by what you can write in a couple of hours. No historian sits down and completes a ground-breaking article within two hours. No new research is conducted within two hours. So what good is it to me and the development of my historical skills if attaining my degree in history is being able to answer two essay questions in two hours? Surely non-timed assessments and long-form essays are a better representation of how I am progressing towards my final classification.

Maybe I am no good at exams? Maybe, I am nit-picking at a system which needs no further overhaul. Maybe I don’t revise enough? Yes, I also chose to go to university. Yes, I chose to sit a history degree, fully aware of what it would entail. But that does not detract from the fact that exams are not effective across the board - particularly when it limits the skills you have learnt.

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