By Dan Davison

Examinations are woven into the fabric of student life. From the ‘Key Stage’ National Curriculum assessments I sat in childhood through to the tests I took as a Master’s student, every stage of my education has known the familiar cycle of revision, testing, marking and grading. It was not until I became a precariously employed university tutor that I realised how dangerously uncritical we are of that cycle. By this point it seems so natural to make people sit exams at various points in their lives that it scarcely occurs to the public consciousness that students and teachers might be better off without such a regimented approach to learning.

First and most obviously, exams are a frequent source of stress for students, which can easily lead to severe mental health problems. Childline, a service provided by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), has reported that, in 2016-17, it delivered more than 3,000 counselling sessions on exam stress. 22% of those who called in did so in May, a common time for exams at multiple stages of education, including GCSEs and A-Levels. The picture remains bleak in higher education, where the number of students dropping out due to mental health issues has recently risen into the thousands. It’s no surprise that so many campuses have become the sites of dynamic, student-run campaigns to fund university mental health services, such as that at University College London (UCL).


UCL students protest the underfunding of mental health services at their institution. Credit: UCL: Fund Our Mental Health Services

The detrimental effect of exams on personal well-being is not limited to students. The majority of marking in higher education is delegated to the lowest rungs of the academic hierarchy. This usually means PhD students who teach as part of their scholarship conditions (often known as ‘postgraduate teaching assistants’), and education workers employed on near-zero hours contracts (often known as ‘hourly-paid tutors’). This is unsurprising given the current epidemic of casualisation in university employment practices. The University and College Union (UCU) estimates that staff on hourly paid contracts perform between 15% and 40% of teaching at most higher education institutions. The heavy workload and isolation that academic staff experience, on top of these precarious employment conditions, make spending long hours reading and marking exam scripts is an exhausting and demoralising affair.

Moreover, with the tremendous pressure to finish the lengthy marking process on time, staff members frequently read and assess the inordinate number of scripts before them in a hurried, mechanical manner. It’s understandable that students often feel their examiners have paid insufficient attention to the contents of their scripts. Whilst my personal experience as a teacher and examiner is limited to the higher education context, it is no secret that similar patterns arise in schools and further education institutions, where teaching staff feel the strain of inadequate funding.

By itself, the psychological burden placed upon students and education workers gives us cause to reconsider assessing people by forcing them to cram weeks or months of learning into an intense handful of hours. But a deeper question remains: are exams actually conducive to the purpose of education? If education is meant to promote human flourishing – to create conditions under which we can achieve self-actualisation – then the answer is a firm ‘no’. With final marks depending so heavily upon them, exams lead students to value their learning only insofar as it helps them achieve their desired grade. For teachers who actually want their students to develop as human beings, one question is as dispiriting as it is common: ‘Do I need to know this for the exam?’

we can make education mean more than determining which cog in the machine each of us will become

No education system is divorced from the broader socio-economic system in which it is embedded. In a capitalist society, education is geared towards producing a skilled workforce for employers. With the commodification and marketisation of education under neoliberalism, private sector interests increasingly determine which skills and bodies of knowledge are ‘valuable’. It need not be this way. Even now, we can make education mean more than determining which cog in the machine each of us will become.

We can begin by admitting that exams detract from meaningful engagement with substantive topics and that, in most subject areas, determining the quality of an exam script to a precise mark out of 100 is wholly artificial. One alternative assessment model worth exploring for the near future is shorter papers spaced evenly across the year, with greater flexibility of topic choice and a simple distinction/pass/fail grading system instead of a percentage. This could leave students with more room to spread their intellectual wings, especially if give staff and students democratic control over the teaching and research performed at their institutions.

For the time being, my advice to students this May comes from one of the many iconic slogans graffitied across the walls of Paris, 50 years ago during the famous May ’68 protests: ‘When examined, answer with questions.’

Featured image credit: Charles Schulze


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