Examining the Examination: why Students Pass or Fail

Exams are increasingly selected as the 'gold standard' in the debate about raising academic standards.

Compared to coursework, exams are relative quick and easy to assess. They are also free from the issues of plagiarism and other forms of cheating that have proliferated in coursework. Indeed, my research shows that with the right money ($100) it is now very straightforward to purchase online a plagiarism-proof, first class, or A* Essay.

In that context I believe that we will be seeing greater reliance on exams in the future, and more of them will be marked by machines in a move toward improved technological efficiency of the educational production line. Their place in the system is secured.

In my view, examination procedures involve a special kind of discipline and they operate as a regime, such as that which we might encounter in a prison. Foucault was not wrong when he linked knowledge and power at an institutional level.

And exams are also a theatre of persecution, where the performance is loaded with expectations, rituals, and associations, most of them negative. For many candidates, the personal experience of the examination is tantamount to sadistic dehumanisation.

As in all power scenarios, the entire event is staged according to simple rules and queer conventions. With a little effort we can step back from that and see examination for what it is: the play of institutionalisation and a game of power. 

But with the right tactics in place you could become a master of the game, and not its pathetic victim. Yet inevitably those who succeed will become the new advocates for more probing examinations as the only way forward.

If you learn to play by the rules the whole process can be exhilarating and very rewarding. 

It will also be your most unforgettable performance and may affect much of your future life prospects.

In the next blog I will list 15 specific reasons why students fail to meet their exam expectations. If you address these issues methodically, you will significantly improve your exam performance !

What has been your experience of exams? Are you a student, parent, teacher, or an examiner?

If you have any exam tips, advice, or recommendations, please feel free to comment below.

For many people, the examination is worse than a trip to the dentists for a tooth extraction, or an episode of surgical examination that results in your guts being ripped out. It's the worst form of dehumanisation.

How did you get over the trauma of examination?

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
The Art of Connection: The Social Life of Sentences  

(Quibble Academic, 2013)


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