Perhaps the start of the semester isn’t the best time to talk about its end, but here we go. Students studying humanities, from anthropology to film studies, will face written exams at the end of the semester. For those who don’t know: Exams in humanities usually consist in writing two or three essays within two to three hours by hand, answering essay questions that often would fill a dissertation.

I take for granted that students dread exams, but it’s less known that your lecturers and tutors hate exams even more. I’m a PhD Student and have marked only about 100 exams, but I have rarely felt hatred of this intensity about anything else. There is some anecdotal evidence for this hatred positively correlating with the number of exams marked, so do assume increased hatred against exams for your veteran lecturers. As a curious humanities student, you might wonder now why almost everyone in your subject, top to bottom, share a hatred of this thing at the end of the year.

The reason is simple: Exams are an outdated practice that not only fail at adequately assessing humanities students, they go against everything humanities stand for. I teach philosophy, but I believe that this goes for all subjects in the humanities: Exams should be abolished and replaced by alternative assessments. Here’s why.

(1) Exams do not test real critical competence

Essays in exams never contain any good philosophy and are painful to read. Why? Because it’s not knowledge or critical reflection that is tested. What leads to success in exams instead is fast and clean handwriting, timing, the ability to quickly come up with a superficial structure and put down stuff that you’ve learned by heart. This leads to you not sufficiently being tested on how well you’ve understood the material, how well you can organise your own research, and how well you can develop your own ideas and thoughts – stuff that your lecturers and tutors want you to do.

What is primarily tested is also not relevant to your future: Both in academia and on the job market, the competence tested in exams doesn’t matter (except if you’re considering a career as government spokesperson or tabloid writer and need to learn how to waffle seemingly coherent but meaningless phrases, fair enough.) You would learn a lot more from other forms of assessment, like writing another essay or giving a proper presentation.

(2) Exams support the wrong kind of learning and go against what humanities are supposed to do

The goal of all humanities subjects is critical thinking: confronting you with ideas, challenging you, making you challenge them, so that you learn how to immerse yourself into complicated, controversial thoughts and tear them apart if there’s need. Exams go against this goal.

Exams reward quick, superficial and broad learning and students who are good at binge-learning everything three days before the exam to forget everything three days after. If you’re one of these students, good for you – but that’s not what your teachers want for you.

If you’re not one of these students: tough. Due to their very concept, exams punish deep learning and students who try to understand ideas by diving into them, doing their own research and developing their own arguments – if you do these things, you won’t be able to utilise them in a two-hour handwriting-fest – and if you try to, you’ll do worse than the other students who simply learned everything by heart and spat it onto the exam sheets.

So, exams are not only not contributing to critical thinking, but go against what humanities stand for. During your exam, you’re not a thinker, but a machine repeating what you’ve swallowed.

(3) Exams put unreasonable pressure on students and are exclusionary for students with mental health problems

Exams are stressful. As the exam usually counts for 50% of the overall module, even those doing well on their essays face significant pressure that isn’t warranted, as students who are good thinkers and writers still risk having bad marks because of the exam. Thereby, exams contribute to a bad learning environment and are one of the main issues dealt with by student services. This goes double for students with mental health problems or anxiety and exclude them from achieving what they could achieve at university.

(4) Exams put an unreasonable amount of pressure on staff

Exams are also painful for your tutors and lecturers, from creating exam questions to marking. Both the administrative as well as the marking effort is higher than it is with essays, as the marking is done with more time pressure and is harder to do because markers are distracted by handwriting, and need a separate, more superficial standard of marking than with essays. That’s bad, because we not only go through stress for the exams, we must lower our standards, since your exams are way worse than your essays, and we can’t just fail half of you.

The solution: abolish exams and replace them by other forms of assessment, such as a third essay, or a presentation within their tutorial group. If you’re convinced already: great, tell your lecturers! If you’re not, bear with me, especially if you’re teaching. I’ve heard two arguments in favour of exams: (a) contract-cheating and (b) broad learning is good. Both arguments have their merits but I don’t believe they are particularly strong ones.

Regarding (a): Contract-cheating is basically you hiring someone else to write your essay for you. You can’t do that for exams, so exams are useful. As St Andrews has some quite wealthy students who might care less about their subjects than about good marks for their future career, I don’t doubt that contract-cheating exists. And yes, it’s almost impossible to tell whether you or a ghost-writer wrote your essay.

But: We’re pushing exams on the entire student and staff body, just to prevent some students from cheating. Is it proportional to hold everyone hostage to prevent a minority of students from possibly cheating to get what they want?

Also, there are other, more productive ways of preventing contract-cheating. Students can be required to give a presentation on their essay topic or be required to submit an essay plan a week before the essay deadline. That would make contract-cheating harder without punishing all staff and students.

Regarding (b): You might think that humanities’ primary aim is to give students broad knowledge of the topics, which can be best assessed by exams, since they cover a wide range of topics.

Firstly, I think you’re wrong about that being the aim of the humanities, see (2). Secondly, there’s other ways to assess a wider range of topics – with another essay, presentations, or group projects. With that, students could cover more, would avoid all the drawbacks of exams, and keep more of the topic as a bonus.

So please, please abolish exams in the name of students, tutors and lecturers. Exams are useless, counterproductive and exclusionary, and scrapping them makes everyone a happier person. It’s not radical – I’m not asking for abolishing all tuition fees or stopping the marketisation of higher education (at least not here) – and it can happen: The philosophy departments at Munich and Reading both abolished exams in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Organise, tell your lecturers, tutors and friends, and it can happen here too.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t disagree that exams are often used in places where they are not the most appropriate form of assessment. But that does not mean that they should be scrapped. Employers still expect exams, they are used during recruitment processes and many employers expect their workforce to take professional exams during their life.

    Contract cheating remains a real issue. The latest estimates are that 15% of students have done this at least once, so it is not a problem that can be ignored. For many tutors (and PhD students), adding more essays, assessments and presentations is not an option. There is simply not time to mark them properly. An essay plan is very easy to outsource.

    More considered assessment is needed. If exams are not fit for purpose, why not? Could an alternative type of controlled assessment be used? Could practical elements be assessed? Why do exams need to be handwritten on paper? There certainly is a need to verify the person who did the work is the student who is being assessed, but that is not the only reason why exams do have a place.

  2. What about mini vivas? You write an essay, then appear before a small jury of one or two. Part 1, they ask you to elaborate a point of your essay OF THEIR CHOOSING (similar but not just repeating your writing: maybe on a specific example, maybe a generalisation, maybe a different application of the same principle). Part 2, Q&A to test your ability to think deeper on a topic related.

    Part 1 raises the costs of contract cheating and plagiarism significantly, and tests your ability to reformulate on the spot, part 2 tests your ability to think on your feet and rewards deep understanding as opposed to pre-learned patterns.

    It’s time consuming on the examiner side but not necessarily much more than grading essays and it’s a piece of the assessment in its own right.

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