No one particularly likes exams – not students, not teachers, not parents. But they are useful, and not just in the ways that you might think.
This article isn’t here to start a debate over the use of exams – they are an embedded part of our education culture, and for now we have to continue to deal with them. Having a debate about this is welcomed, but not on this article at this time. Let’s remove the morality of exam-culture, and look at the reality of what we have in front of us.
We often hear the argument that exams aren’t part of ‘the real world’, aren’t part of the adulthood we are preparing students for. The harsh reality is that school *is* ‘the real world’ for our kids for around 12 years of their life. That ‘real world’ of school currently involves sitting exams, so saying that exams don’t prepare students for ‘the real world’ is a fallacy. Their ‘job’ while they’re at school requires them to do this task.
No they don’t assess things like empathy, or kindness, but that isn’t actually their purpose. We all know that exams are ‘designed’ to test a student’s knowledge and understanding of some particular content. A lot of exams also test a student’s ability to perform specific skills, e.g. reading a graph, interpreting a piece of art, constructing an article, etc.
In order to do well, the student needs to understand the content, as well as how to answer exam-style questions.
Blah blah blah, we know all this.
I’m here to argue that exams also teach students a lot of very valuable life skills, that actually have nothing to do with the content of the exam itself.
Many of these things will happen unconsciously. It’s rare that a teacher will sit down with a class and outline exactly what exams can teach them about their own brain and ways of working, and the skills they learn through exam-taking that have nothing to do with the content. I don’t think it’s any fault of the teachers that these conversations aren’t happening – I think teachers just aren’t consciously aware of these things themselves.
So here are the things I believe exams teach our students. Invaluable life skills that have exactly zero to do with the content.
Preparing for an exam can translate across to preparing for almost anything else in life, particularly for tasks required by your job as an adult.
You might need specific materials in order to sit the exam (or perform the task). You might need to practice and develop particular skills. Even the need to prepare your memory in order to have the necessary information available to you at the time you need it, without having the benefit (maybe?) of resources immediately accessible that tell you what you need to know.
Sure, we have the internet in our pockets, but we can’t be sitting at our job continuously looking up the knowledge and skills we need to be able to perform that job. Learning how to prepare your time, resources, and knowledge is an invaluable skill that is taught through exam-taking (sometimes explicitly through exam-ready-skills courses, and sometimes implicitly through the repeated exam process).
In the lead up to the exam, many students learn valuable skills about time management in order to effectively study. This is often done through trial and error to see what works best for each individual student given their personal context, though most schools explicitly teach time-management skills. This could be done in the class that will be taking the exam, or through a different subject that is life-skilled based.
During the exam itself students have to be aware of their timing and pacing. Through repetition of the exam process they learn their own unique pacing to ensure they aren’t rushing through unnecessarily, or running out of time. This can directly translate across to other areas of their life, even though it may seem incredibly specific to sitting-and-writing-answers.
I’m sure I don’t need to explicitly explain the benefits of learning a bit of task-specific time management.
This is one of those things that I used to see all the time on job-ads aimed at teenagers. We all know teenagers can be incredibly lax when it comes to getting to places on time, or getting things ready on time. Exams, particularly external exams, absolutely require student to physically be ready and on time to sit the exam. Sometimes there are consequences for being late – docked marks, or simply the fact that you now have a shortened exam window, as they won’t extend your finish time to make up for the time lost.
I’m one of those people who absolutely loathes being late, so this was never an issue for me. But for some people it’s a built-in reality, something that may be incredibly hard to change. They’re just always late, that’s it.
Better that these people have exposure to the consequences of poor punctuality in a more forgiving setting than, say, constantly being late for work where you may be fired.
Stress Coping Mechanisms
I must say, it’s extremely pleasing to see this topic being explicitly taught more in schools now.
We all get stressed. That’s a reality of the human existence. How we react or respond to that stress is very unique, and can be beneficial, detrimental, or even neutral.
Exposure to high stress situations without necessarily being high stakes can teach students a heck of a lot about their own coping mechanisms. Again, through a bit of trial and error, they can learn to recognise their own anxieties, how their body physically responds to stress, and what little strategies they can personally use to help themselves cope.
Schools can help students develop explicit strategies for dealing with the stress and anxiety they may specifically feel around exams, and this can be then translated into other areas of life
Often students finish exams before the allotted time, and many are not used to sitting and waiting for anything these days (hello increased instant gratification). But in exam situations they are usually required to sit in silence until the exam period is finished.
Sometimes students make use of this extra time to check their answers, which can be both a blessing and a curse. They can often pick up on mistakes they have made, especially if they were rushing. But on the flip side this can lead students to second-guess themselves and unfortunately change an answer to now be incorrect.
Often students won’t use this extra time to check their answers. It could be that they are confident in their responses, that checking will increase their anxiety, or that they are just done with this, get it away from me. I would still argue it’s beneficial for students to wait out the allotted time, and for one very specific and possible odd reason. This actually gives them some time to daydream without distraction, which many don’t experience any more since they always have their mobiles with them.
The potential positive effects of daydreaming are huge, as long as the students don’t go down a negative thought spiral, which is always possible when they have nothing but their own brain for company and distraction for a while.
Again with the instant gratification, many students are very used to having very short time spans for attention on things. As soon as they get even the slightest, most remote bit bored with something, they can immediately access something else. We see the popularity of this through social media – short is best if you want the most attention.
But these exams require extended attention (on something that isn’t a form of entertainment). That can be incredibly difficult for students to cope with, especially if we as teachers are moving more and more towards an entertainment-style education dynamic within our lessons. We are taught through the literature that short activities are best, keep them engaged and then switch before the get too distracted and bored. But this is really a disservice – exams are long, and to succeed they need to be able to focus for extended periods of time on just one thing. I think we need to bring back extended-focus tasks into the classroom to better prepare our students for these exams.
Having the ability to cope well with an extended-focus task is absolutely critical to pretty much every single job out there. Our workplaces aren’t built on 30-second-or-less blocks of engagement – sometimes we need to spend literal hours engaged in one thing before we can move on to something else. If we aren’t teaching that skill in class, we can at least teach it through exams.
Can all these things be taught through a different medium? Of course. But until we have a literal societal-level dynamic shift, we are stuck with exams, and knowing the above can make them just that little bit more tolerable.
I encourage you as a teacher to sit down with your classes and outline these universal skills that are learned through exam-taking. Especially when you have students (or parents!) questioning the necessity and appropriateness of the process.