Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in:  Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Friday, 17 May, 2002, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Are exams a waste of time?
As the UK exam season gets underway, BBC One's 4x4 Reports programme examines the examiners. Is the current system good enough or can more be done to improve it?

Last summer the UK exam system came under intense scrutiny after it was revealed an examination board had distributed papers with mistakes, some boards failed to mark papers on time and then produced scores of incorrectly graded papers.

There was also a dramatic increase in the number of schools caught cheating last year, 31 seven-year-olds SAT results were scrapped after allegations that teachers had helped them.

Another 750 students were disqualified last year after being caught cheating in exams, and one A Level student hit the headlines after he got hold of his paper the day before his exam.

Is our exam system in chaos? Are children sitting too many exams too young? Would you scrap examinations or are they the best way to test intelligence?

This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

The important thing is being able to use those facts well, quickly and under pressure

lbw, Reading, England
The number of exams is not as important as what those exams are. Pure regurgitation of facts is not as useful as being forced to use your reasoning skills under pressure. In my work, remembering things is important, but many of those things can be looked up if I can't recall immediately. The important thing is being able to use those facts well, quickly and under pressure. That is what exams should demonstrate.
lbw, Reading, England

I am in the second year of my A levels. In the last three years I have taken 37 exams. Too much pressure is put on students with exams.
Rachael Hodgson, UK

Exams are a waste of time! - All they measure is how good you are at memorising things. Also, it may look very nice to see the good grades on your CV, but when it comes down to it - employers want to see experience
Catherine Pitt, UK

Nobody really learns anything by force

S Dynan, UK
All children have the potential to achieve something with their lives. Each child has their own unique abilities, interests and personal qualities that determine which path they take in life. The education system in this country is too often about spoon-feeding, pressurising and standardising children. Nobody really learns anything by force - it can only come from a natural interest and a desire to explore a subject. Einstein had a poor record at school.
S Dynan, UK

I'm so glad that a program has finally recognised that we teenagers are getting increasingly annoyed with the reports that exams are getting easier. After being tested for the last few years I am finally get sick to the back teeth. It isn't just national curriculum tests, but in school tests to check attainment. Give me a break! I need to sleep!
Jenni Sutton, Kent

Your 4x4 program glossed over the possibility that students are coached for exams instead of receiving the broad education of a few years ago. I have heard of a local primary school which gets very good 7 year old exam results, but only teaches a limited curriculum with a view to getting these good results. What someone needs to look at is whether a broader education might be more useful for people in their future lives, rather than a narrow education and some good exam results
Bill, UK

Regardless of intelligence some students are more prone to stress than others

Andy, UK
There is not much alternative to exams. Having spoken to teachers at my old comprehensive school they are divided on whether GCSE's are easier than the 'O' Levels we done. I can't comment on the questions on the GCSE exam papers but it does seem to me to be a fairer way of measuring ones ability. Exams are not the best way to test ability for everyone. Regardless of intelligence some students are more prone to stress than others, some may just have a better memory or a more methodical revision technique. It may be they have greater support at home and at school/college than other students. For this reason I believe it is imperative that continual assessment and interim modules continue to contribute significantly to a student's final result. This also provides incentive to work to a consistent level throughout the term and the whole year. When it comes to subjecting very young children to the stress of tests, I can't believe there is much justification. I think the Welsh were rig ht to scrap those tests.
Andy, UK

It is important to pass your exams in that that's how future colleges and potential employers will assess your suitability. But four or five years at college does not teach you how to do a job. Work is completely different and you learn when you get there. My four years on graphic design courses didn't teach me how to be a designer. I haven't picked up a magic marker since I left five years ago.
Emma, England

Testing is important but there needs to be a balance between exams and course work to play to everyone's strengths. In addition I have always found I learned and remembered a lot more from doing course work than cramming for exams. Course work is about applying knowledge, exams require cramming as much "fact" into short term memory only to dump that information for the next block of facts for the next exam.
Helen, UK

I am less than a week away from taking yet another set of examinations. However, this time they aren't simply for the benefit of education statistics but will affect my whole future. Having gained an offer of AAB from Oxford University, after proving myself in several interviews and an exam, I feel that it is totally unfair that my whole future rests on the exams I will sit in the next few weeks. Even though I have revised well and consider myself to have a good understanding of the syllabus there is no guarantee that I won't be faced with unanswerable questions due to errors in the papers, particular questions which don't show my true ability or even incorrect results in August.
Anonymous, UK

Life is a game. If you pass and get good results you get further in this competition, but you might lose some of your childhood and get depressed and mentally ill. Even then what you have learnt might be irrelevant and useless. Is it better to work hard and maybe be on top of the game, or should you take life as it comes? Live for today, or for the future. As I'm under 16 I still have not found the answer to that question and have no power to challenge the education system. But I believe something must be changed because we humans have not quite got it right yet!
Esther, Uk

Exams are like driving tests, they don't prepare you for the real world, assessing your actual ability to do a job is rather tricky so you're tested on abilities that are easily measured.
Gordon, UK

Nicola, who said: "I just feel stale" from endless exams and is in her 3rd year at university hasn't had reality strike yet. In my job, if I had a degree I'd be earning 3000 a year MORE !!! If I had a first....5000 MORE.

That is enough to pay for my year's mortgage payments alone. "Learn !.....learn !".
Drew, UK

I would have to disagree with Jon Cooper about his "work experience". Last year, I graduated from University with a 2.1 in a computing topic. To this very day, I have still not found a job.

Lack of experience in

The real world is a rat-race, and you'll need to retain your cunning edge to outwit the competitor.

Geoff, UK
industry was not my main failing. Many companies automatically rejected my applications based on my A-Level grades. Although I came out of university with a "good" degree, the exam results of 4 years ago have become a thorn in my side.

At the end of the day, all that matters are the grades printed on a certificate. The better those grades are, the more likely one is able to get to a "good" university or find a job. All you kids should take note and study hard! The real world is a rat-race, and you'll need to retain your cunning edge to outwit the competitor.
Geoff, UK

I begin my A Level exams next week and feel that my results may not reflect ability or effort, but more purely the luck of the draw. For example, will I get an incompetent or an over-generous examiner?

There are numerous examples of examiners giving a grade E, upgraded to A when remarked. Hardly surprising when 24m exams need to be marked this year whilst there is a teacher shortage.
Anjool Malde, UK

Exams can be a very unfair means of assessment and are just a form of control that the power mechanisms use in order to classify and legally label some citizens as ''non-qualified''.

These citizens are consequently used for second class jobs and are marginalised at cost to society.
Alexandra, Greece/UK

In today's world of competition, there are not hundreds but thousands of people vying for the same college places and jobs. How then does one choose one particular person over another?

There has to be some sort of methodology, and I think that examinations have proven to be the best form.
Shiv Kak, India

If the government expects us to believe that it is sensible to make kids sit endless exams, then it is up to them to show us the evidence that it works. Where is the evidence?
Adam, UK

Exams definitely have a role to play in determining who is essentially bright and who essentially isn't.

I do believe that far too much significance is placed on exams nowadays though, and it seems increasingly that few organisations are interested in what a potential employee can do, more in what pieces of paper they have collected along the way.

The purpose of an exam is to provide a focus, a single consistent point of measurement. Having so many exams detracts from their purpose.
John B, UK open to abuse. What parent would refuse to help their child when so much rides on getting the right grades?

Sarah, UK
An exam is the only fair way to assess an individual's knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge. Coursework sounds like a good idea in theory, but is open to abuse. What parent would refuse to help their child when so much rides on getting the right grades?

Also, just as athletes cannot perform physically at their best throughout the season, I don't believe students can give their best all year round either. I certainly found my exam based degree far less mentally draining than my coursework based GCSEs.

Students need some down-time to develop as people. How can they find time for that when every essay they write counts towards their final grades?
Sarah, UK

The expansion of the exam timetable into the rest of the school year has infringed on teaching too far. We are now being tested more and more, on less and less. Exams test teaching, they shouldn't be expected to replace it.
Neil Roques, Uk

As a teacher all I can say is - did anyone get taller by being measured all the time ?
Geoff, UK

Exams are a very important safety mechanism against people who cheat in their assignments

George Kaskarelis, UK
My five years experience in an English university tells me that exams are a very important safety mechanism against people who cheat in their assignments.

Despite the efforts of many lecturers plagiarism has reached epidemic proportion with the advent of the internet. Furthermore only during exam time can the real life pressure be simulated in the class-room.

On the other hand assignments that can be done in just a week tend to be handed out a month in advance and in some cases even more. This is why exams are crucial to the English education system.
George Kaskarelis, UK

Although I believe in examination as a concept, the current system is woefully inadequate. The Higher Grade exams in Scotland (which I am about to sit) place far too much emphasis on learning a chunk of text off by heart and reproducing it under examination conditions.

It's a test of memory and little else (I speak with particular reference to Modern Languages, of which I'm sitting 2 Highers). Having spoken to my teachers, they agree that the system needs reform if it is to be held up as an indicator of the state of the nation's education system. As it is, the system is pointless.
G E McCurday, Glasgow, Scotland

A good degree is absolutely no guarantee of a good job

Will, UK
I am taking my finals this summer, many of my friends finished university last year. What they have found is that a good degree is absolutely no guarantee of a good job.

The education system encourages you to think that jumping through hoops for the first 22 years of your life is the route to success. This is total rubbish - the most successful friend I have left school at 16 and started working in computers.

Unless you want to be a teacher, doctor or scientist formal education is pretty much a waste of time. Go to University only for the right reasons: to drink, party and put off work as long as possible at someone else's expense! That's why I'm online now not doing any revision. Doh!
Will, UK

Exams are useful as far as they go, but exam fatigue is a very real problem. I am in my first year at Oxford, and have had annual exams for the last seven years, both internal and public. I am bored of them now!! A very real worry is that students will be burnt out by meaningless exams before they reach the ones that really matter!!
C Cotton, England

Exam results and more importantly a degree just get you in to your first real job. After that, it is experience that counts and the ability to put yourself across well at interviews.
Rupert Fisher, The Netherlands (British)

I would just like to say, in reply to the comment made by Mark, England, that not everyone who does badly in exams are "slackers" or "thick-kids"! I suffer from extreme nerves, so that no matter how hard I work (and believe me, I do work), I will never do as well as I could because my nerves prevent this. This is why I prefer coursework and I think it is disgraceful that so much cheating and copying has prevented coursework from being taken seriously by some people. I for one, would never even consider getting someone else to write my essays!
Elizabeth, UK

There is nothing wrong with exams at the end of term. I am 23 years left school, but we did mock exams, test papers and questions 6 to 12 months leading up to exams. There is no excuse for slackers, or dare I be politically incorrect and say the "thick kids", who from what I can remember, could not be bothered to learn.
Mark, England

Once many children read these articles about devaluing then they believe that exams are pointless.

Alex Barber, England
I am fifteen years old and two and a half weeks away from sitting my GCSEs, it is so unhelpful and selfish of the press and the public to be talking down the exams before we have even taken them. Once many children read these articles about devaluing then they believe that exams are pointless. You can't mock the exams and then complain about the results and claim the education system is cheating the nation's children.
Alex Barber, England

Exams are important. They are not an intelligence test, neither are they supposed to be. They test how well you take in information and how you manage to interpret it and put it to use. I'm not a fan of big SATs, GCSE and A-level exams. They place far too much weight on a short span in a student's life. I went through a school system with continual assessment system. Every subject had four exams in a year and your final mark depended on these exams. They spread the workload for both teachers and students evenly throughout the year. I remember being very ill for the final chemistry exam one year, but since I'd received an A on all my previous exams it wasn't a catastrophe that I did less well in the final exam.
Christine, UK

I interview around 10 graduates per year, and employ one or two of them. I only interview people whose course has included a year of industrial placement - I've found over the years that this type of person suits my company better than someone who has not had exposure to the commercial world.

This year, I've offered jobs to two people - one a Graduate from last year with 3rd Class hons, and one who is expecting a 2:1 - In both cases, their commitment to their studies was well complimented by their "life experience" and general attitude. I have to say, and I feel a bit guilty about it, that I don't even look at "A" level or GCSE results, since I feel that they reflect the ability to remember facts rather than to apply reasoning or intelligence.
John, England

I've had exams at least every year for the past 8 years and I've had enough

Exams are a valuable test of how well you can understand, memorise, prioritise workloads and perform under pressure. However they are not the only thing that's important for getting a job or having a balanced life.

I agree with exams, but I am now approaching my 3rd year university exams, the results of which will be on my CV for life, and I just feel stale.

I've had exams at least every year for the past 8 years and I've had enough. I wonder if having exams every year for too many years affects exam performance for other people, and if so whether SATs are good for the children?

I feel that although in certain subject areas it may be necessary to examine students to determine their final grades, a continuous assessment system would be much more beneficial, and fairer.

What about the pupils and students who do brilliantly throughout their course, and end up getting a substandard grade just because they had an off-day on their exam?

I think a new system would also encourage certain students to work hard for the duration of their courses instead of trying to cram an entire course worth of revision into the period directly before an exam.
Sarah, Manchester, UK

I got 4 As at A-Level, a first class degree from Oxford and PhD and I got rejected from the first 24 jobs I applied for over a 6 month period, certainly the most depressing time of my life.

The reasons given were similar - not enough experiences in life of things other than exams. I definitely feel I worked too hard and neglected other aspects of life - I got it wrong and it was a rude shock.

There are other things in life which matter more!

Jon Cooper

I think a good formal education is important and it's clearly not good to fail all your exams, but it's only part of your broader education in life. I will certainly not be pushing my children to work all hours to get their exams - there are other things in life which matter more!
Jon Cooper, UK

Examinations have many objectives: to present to prospective employers, to measure school performance, to measure individual pupil's weak areas for further attention and even, as a character-building experience.

Examinations are not so much reflection of intelligence, but rather a reflection of one's commitment to life

Brendan Fernandes
There are also central records kept of examination results that can be used to verify a person's claims. However, one's performance in exams is not the be all and end all. In this sense, it is fair to say that examinations are not so much a reflection of intelligence, but rather a reflection of one's commitment to life.

Good luck to this year's students - your life is in your hands!
Brendan Fernandes, UK

I will be undertaking my AS exams in just over a week and do feel that too much importance is placed on exams. Work should just be assessed throughout the year particularly when many subjects are just exam based, with no coursework involved.
Natasha, UK

If they are still confusing and the subject matter strays from the syllabus the yes its time they were changed. I revised for a history GCSE on trade unions only to be presented with a paper on the Victorian railway system.
Neil, UK

There isn't really an effective alternative to examinations. The exam is an effective way of testing knowledge. However, continually examining people is likely to have a negative effect on the learning process. Pupils at school should be examined no more than one sitting a year and exams for young children should certainly be scrapped.
Dave Allum, Notts UK

Continual assessment is both insufficient and takes far too much of the teacher's time

You can use an exam if you like to "test intelligence" but the traditional written exam is supposed to test what you can remember and how you can apply it (to problems that admit of written answers). There must be many kinds of employment (and further education courses) where these characteristics are paramount, so I'd suggest the traditional written exam certainly has its uses.

But the basic question is: if you do not use any form of examination, how do you assess the quality of your students? "Continual assessment" also has its uses, but I've taught children music on the guitar and I reckon that continual assessment is both insufficient, and takes far too much of the teacher's time. It needs to be backed up with periodic exams.
Phil, UK

Exams do not test intelligence, they test how well you can play the system.
Anonymous, UK

See also:

16 Jun 01 | Mike Baker
That's enough exam hurdles
20 Aug 99 | exams99
Exam record set again
20 Apr 02 | Education
Concern over trainee exam markers
21 Jan 02 | Education
Examiners knew about maths error
22 Jan 02 | Education
More errors blamed on exam board
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Talking Point stories