Exams: A Necessary Evil And How To Survive Them

07/04/2017 11:35

The Easter holidays are upon us and with them exam season begins to raise its ugly head once more. It's the time of year when students freak-out, their parents lose sleep and whatever hair they had left and tutors rub their hands with glee as the work pours in.

However, whilst students understandably might want to banish the beast with a flick of a wand and a Depulso spell, in my opinion exams such as GCSEs are a necessary evil. And with the right approach they can be tamed.

Firstly, let's not dance around the issue: exams have problems. Many students, including very bright ones, find the pressure almost unbearable. In 2015/16 alone Childline conducted 3077 counselling sessions on coping with exam stress. College and University places are determined by exam results, as are schools' rankings and reputations. The pressure isn't going to go away any time soon.

In addition, it's hardly a level playing field. Students who are ill-prepared by their schools have to compete against peers who have been spoon-fed the answers by their teachers or family members and private tutors. I once had a student find out a week before his GCSE English Literature exam that his teacher hadn't taught his class the poetry section. Another student I tutored from a different school had teacher-curated mind maps for each poem. What's more, schools can pick and choose from five different examination boards at GCSE and there have been disturbing reports in the past about some boards actually hinting at upcoming questions to teachers at expensive seminars.

Moreover, the entire UK education system is skewed to elevate logical subjects above more creative ones. Maths trumps History. Science tramples over Art.

All that being said, whilst exams are far from perfect, there has to be some form of objective assessment of pupils. Otherwise, we're left with a system of subjective teachers' reports and nepotism. More coursework is often mooted as an alternative, but as a tutor, I've been asked so many times by families to basically do their child's coursework for them. I always refuse, but I'm sure not everyone has these scruples. Alternatively, if that coursework is shifted inside school to prevent cheating then we're back to what is in effect an even longer exam.

That is not to say that the situation can't be improved.

As far as the examination system is concerned, we could make some relatively simple changes. For example, we could have one exam board so that every student in the country sits the same exam. We could also ensure that all subjects are treated with the same respect so that students value the results of the subjects they excel at. And take GCSE maths - a working knowledge of maths is obviously important to one's functioning effectively in society. But does GCSE maths as we know it actually provide this? Mightn't it be better to split maths into two parts: practical maths and abstract maths and have a separate grade for each? Practical maths would address real world skills: what you need to know to make informed decisions and not be ripped off. Abstract maths would cover all the rest, algebra, trigonometry etc: the stuff that isn't actually going to feature in most people's everyday lives.

Students could also be encouraged to use revision techniques that take the pressure off. Here are five:

1) Tackle your files: You come home with bulging lever arch files of notes thinking you have no hope of memorising all of their contents. The truth is, you don't have to. Take the syllabus as your Bible, and then go through your files ensuring that you have notes covering this and nothing more. Random bits of homework, that unnecessary photocopied pie-chart can all be binned, leaving a far less intimidating volume of work.

2) Make friends with mark schemes: These are invaluable as they tell you what the examiner is looking for. Go through them and adapt your notes accordingly.

3) Take breaks: There is nothing to be gained from just sitting there, frying your brain. Switch off between study sessions. Read a book, get some exercise.

4) Eat breakfast: You won't be able to focus if you don't fuel your brain. I used to eat boiled eggs and fish fingers before morning exams. Part protein, part superstition, but it worked.

5) Take a deep breath: And put everything into perspective. Exams are important, but they are not everything. Ask for help if it's all too much. No one will think less of you. And remember, lots of very successful people bombed in exams. I doubt Damien Hirst spends any time lamenting his E in Art A-level. That said, as someone who made his money pickling things, maybe he did well in Home Ec.