Opinion

Why we must wield the pandemic to transform the way we do exams

I’m flustered. Clueless. Helpless. So little time to prepare for such a mammoth task. Don’t they know I have a degree to manage on top of all this? I’ll have to tell them. I can’t take the exam. I never wanted to study Chemistry. In fact, I don’t remember ever learning this content. Hang on: Why am I sat in a Geography class? And why is there a school textbook in front of me? Didn’t I already do my A levels?—What?—You mean to say there’s a whole History paper for which I haven’t revised?

And then I wake up. Another whimsical mealtime anecdote, perhaps. Except the feelings it evokes are all too painfully familiar, the stress it provokes too hauntingly real.

In an episode of QI’s ‘Series N,’ David Mitchell recalls being “busted back to the sixth form [in a dream], and I have to do my A levels again and….I wake up all stressed by it.” Mitchell, who attended Abingdon School, just down the road from Oxford, is an alumnus of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, having read History there from 1993–6. His experiences as such are not dissimilar from many of our own.

He was one of the lucky ones, though. And I’m not just referring to his rise to comic stardom.

The axis of all-determining exams on which our educational institutions revolve is guilty of crimes in the real world as well as that of the subconscious. It is an accessory to depression, to anxiety, and to their awful array of consequences. Our nightmares bespeak an underlying truth: the status quo is destructive, and in need of significant alteration. Whatever happened to the pursuit of happiness? There is something fundamentally wrong with a method of assessment that scars its subjects (subconsciously or otherwise) for the rest of their lives, or, worse, brings them tragically to a premature end.

This analysis is not in itself revolutionary. It goes without saying that with great academic ambition comes a great burden of effort. Nor is it my intention to be a high-sounding utopian. But the “old school” approach (conservative with a capital “C”), concentrating the workload within one suffocating pressure cooker at the end of the course, must be abolished, or at the very least reformed beyond recognition.

It was on the train to my A level English exam some two years ago that a teacher, overhearing this same rant, interjected that every staff room in the country has “a dartboard with [former minister for education] Michael Gove’s face on it.” Obvious hyperbole aside, the remark is a revealing one, if not at all surprising. Teachers aren’t happy. As far as I can tell, pupils aren’t, either. The last ten years have incapacitated the educational and healthcare systems: students, bearing the emotional load of all-or-nothing exams, have found themselves with little recourse to professional care and clinical services, themselves hamstrung by needless governmental cuts, chops, and changes in the public sector.

I speak from experience, much of it personal, as somebody who has fought an on-off war with the demons in my mind ever since I enrolled in secondary school. In alternate years I’ve had peaks and troughs, and have been functional since Year 10 only when on the maximum prescriptible dosage of antidepressants. I’ve sustained injuries physical and psychological; I’ve hurt, I’ve cried, I’ve sacrificed sleep at the altar of the A-star; I’ve seen myself, my body, my relationships all subjected to a state of flux and insecurity. Yet what I’ve been through is nothing next to some I’ve encountered and to the many, many more who have suffered far worse under the relentlessly turning wheel of worries and strains, targets and demands.

There is, of course, a common thread uniting our stories, which is that academic stressors consistently initiate or exacerbate the problems. This is not to place the blame squarely on “the establishment,” so to speak, nor to diminish other factors, which in many instances (mine included) are just as if not more catalytic. It is simply to point out that the present way of doing things promotes behaviours which in the long run are unhealthy, even debilitative. To have high-achieving aspirations is frequently to condemn oneself to a prolonged period of dread (if low-level) in anticipation of the all-important endgame, to burn oneself out to the extent of running on empty and of succumbing to total fatigue at the very moment of the performance.

Call it self-inflicted, but it wouldn’t happen (or would happen far less) were the emphasis to be shifted from a two-week do-or-die at the tail end of an exhausting ordeal. I’m not calling for modular exams; these would be little better, maybe even worse. I ask instead that we take a moment to reconsider the utility and to revisit the very concept of timed, written examinations, to adapt the antiquated modus operandi to a world equipped with word processors, with editable essays, with increasingly digital, universalised, and equalising resources.

Who, hand on heart, can profess to producing their best work—to doing themselves justice—in a stuffy, clammy exam hall and in an unreasonably restrictive timeframe, all while carrying on one’s shoulders the weight of pent up expectations? Not me, that’s for sure. Where is the value in migraine-inducing memorisation, in breakdown-triggering bursts of high-intensity revision? These are not life skills. They are a dereliction of duty on the part of the examining body. They reward cramming over consistency, shortcuts over dedication, perfect factual recall over the perfection of the relevant competencies.

If nothing else, electronic assessment would at least and at last begin to address the implicit gender prejudices associated with certain styles of penmanship (itself a gendered term)—which is a troublingly persistent trend in the humanities at Oxford.

The submission of a selective portfolio of essays seems to me to be the best solution, the most suitable successor to the hegemony of handwriting and timed conditions. We churn out essay after essay regardless: why add to the insufferable workload by disregarding the marathon and grading us purely on the outcome of a superfluous final sprint?

That said—and with reference in particular to gender inequalities—there is yet far more to be done. What better time to do it than now, though, amid the upheaval and introspection mandated by the COVID-19 crisis? By force of necessity, we saw exams transposed swiftly and en masse to an online format. Some were cancelled, others converted into coursework. It can be done. Examination as it currently operates is not constitutive of education.

For the sake of our collective wellbeing, and of students in all countries and of all ages, governments and universities wedded to the “old school” ideal must awaken from their premodern slumber.

The question is: will Oxford at long last—and for once—take the innovative initiative?

Alessandro Giacometto

Alessandro Giacometto is going into his third year at St John's College, where he reads History and French. He is about to embark on his year abroad in France, beginning in Biarritz and then moving on to Paris. When not in Oxford, he lives in Wokingham, near Reading.