Stress levels rise, deadlines loom and flashcard demand surges: Sheffield students prepare themselves for the first exam period of the academic year. But, as everyone no doubt laments at some point during their revision, what’s the point? Have exams become futile?

It’s a system we all know and understand but perhaps one we’ve outgrown. Is there still life in the timed essay, the two-hour multiple choice, the stats test? Without doubt this tried and tested method has its pros and we cannot simply dismiss it outright. The questions are written by experts in their field and focus on a syllabus that is designed to give a breadth and depth of knowledge to gain a full understanding of the module. The idea that EVERYTHING cannot come up but ANYTHING can may frustrate us all but it encourages all-round comprehension, which surely is the end goal for all subjects?

Nevertheless, there is a school of thought that suggests exams are not the solution for all subjects – and I am inclined to agree. Different subjects require different skills and therefore it makes sense to assess them differently. After all, can an English student really be adjudged to have a first-class understanding of Shakespeare based on a two-hour essay under exam conditions? No, they cannot. The truth is essay-based subjects are, by nature, open and expressive and surely added time restraints hinder expression rather than encourage it?

It makes more sense for these modules to be assessed by other means such as coursework or presentations than by exams – as some are, but many more should be. The crux of assessment for any subject should be to determine the level of understanding and competence a student has in their particular field. Therefore, if there are different ways to accurately assess different modules then surely it makes sense to use them.

Ultimately, exams are not futile. They are still a very adept way of measuring ability, but not for everyone. For subjects where the requirement is a broad understanding, I believe there should be assessments that match this better, such as research projects or presentations.

Though they may seem hellish, exams are not dead and surely won’t be for some time, yet perhaps their usefulness is starting to fade. Good news? Well, this will just mean more coursework deadlines to contend with… The pain never really goes away, does it?

Image: David Hawgood

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