(Planet Me)
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
 
"...Spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening words to a lecturer about Cronenberg..."


Popular belief is that exams are getting easier. Having not sat a state exam in some 15 years, I can’t tell you for sure that they are getting easier. Personally, I would be surprised if they are. But having sat around 50 exams in my life, I can say that getting the information you need to pass an exam is getting easier.

The first change is that the ‘allocated scoring’ method of state exams has now been abolished. In olden days – i.e. when I was sitting exams – exam marks were distributed so that no more than the top 5% of any one year got the ‘A’ Grade, 15-20% the ‘B’ Grade, and so on.

The first exams I sat were GCSE’s, yet the next A-Levels. (In some weird way, cards in phone boxes still offer O- and A-Levels to anyone willing to pay for it). Perhaps, more surprisingly I got 3A’s at GCSE. When this allocated scoring model was taken out of action then, it became easier to earn A Grades. Not that exams were easier but the grades themselves were – possibly – distributed more liberally.



The other thing that makes it perhaps easier is The Information. When I was at University, there was no such thing as the Internet. These days the Internet is the world’s biggest library, with wikipedia.org and google.com being the biggest libraries around. These days, you can do all your research in seconds from your sofa.

Back then, finding the Information took most of the time : to walk to the library, to trawl through the floors, to check the aisles, to get on your knees and your tippy toes to find the book filed by reference number and nomenclature, to find the right row in the maze, and then maybe, if you were lucky, to find the book wasn’t on loan. To open the pages, the dusty, musky smell of old paper and finding that maybe they weren’t ripped out. You couldn’t Ctrl+F. You had to use your eyes, in halls made of silence. No music. No mobile phone.

The ‘non-loan’ section was miniscule. In a library four floors tall, each floor the size of half a football pitch, the section was the size of a modest bedroom. Essays were mostly written by hand. I remember the days of tying damp tisue around my fingers so the writing callus on my hand would hurt less. Only 1,300 words to go. Of locking myself in my room at a writing desk with music and pens and paper and spewing out 3,000 words on how The Shamens Pro>Geny Remix Album (info sheet here)was an exercise in post-modern minimalism*. Coming out only to wee or make a sandwich. Spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening words to a lecturer about Cronenberg.

*It got me a mark of 78% and the lecturer said I made a potentially tedious subject interesting.



I scrawled through photocopied and highlighted notes looking for appropriate quotes from Frenchmen and Michael Medved, and it took me all day just to write it. At five hundred words an hour, that’s still a word every 11.2 seconds. The information just wasn’t there : music news leaked out once a week in a broadsheet that left your fingers black. There was an information drought. If I wanted to know about something, I had to track it down by hand, like a hunter in the outback, and kill the information myself before dragging it back home. I loved University. (Wikipedia page on my Uni here)

Exams aren’t easier these days. But finding the answers to the question undoubtedly is. No wonder people are getting smarter. Zeroes And Ones will take us there.


Comments:
I agree we should be cautious about glibly saying that exams are getting easier, but the statistics make it very hard to support a counter-argument. More passes. More 'A' grades being awarded, more people achieving first class degrees. The fact that universities like Cambridge are having to ask their 1st year undergraduates in a subject like maths to take a 2 week intensive course to bring them up to the standard they expect....

Information is much more readily available, it's true, but I don't think that makes all that much difference in some subjects (like say Maths) and in other subjects (like history) you would have to be very cautious before taking something you had read on wikipaedia as fact....

I refuse to belive that people are getting any smarter (or for that matter any stupider). I think the exams are getting easier. That's not to say that sitting exams isn't as stressful now as it's always been, just that the actual questions themselves are not as difficult as they used to be (or are being marked more leniently).

I was one of those lucky people who was (relatively) effortlessly good at exams, for which I have always been very grateful. My elder brother wasn't one of those people. He failed 2 of this 3 a levels first time around. He went on to get a first class degree, a pHd at Cambridge and became a post-doctoral research scientist... so it just goes to show that exams aren't the whole story anyway.

ST
 
They MAY be getting easier, but i feel the availability of the information is making it easier, even if the exams themselves are no easier, finding the information needed to pass is not as hard as it once was. I'm sure I'd've had straight A's if I sat them now.
 
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