A Point of View: The age-old anxiety of exam time

Board outside Glasgow University reads: "Silence please, exams in progress"

These days, the historian Mary Beard marks university exams rather than sits them - but as the season of finals begins, she finds it difficult to avoid being caught up in her students' anxieties.

I am about to spend the next month or so doing exams - like hundreds of thousands of anxious young people throughout the land. I'm not actually taking them of course, although I do still, even now, regularly get those awful panicky dreams about turning up in the wrong place, for the wrong exam, having learned the wrong stuff.

For me now exams are all about preparing my students, advising them on revision tactics, then turning into the scary monster who marks them, before turning back again to the friend who congratulates or mops up. I can't honestly claim that this is worse than taking the exams yourself. But it still isn't fun to watch the tough, engaging and intelligent young people you have taught for three years suddenly morph into nervous wrecks, hanging a bit pathetically on your every word, as they have never, quite rightly, done before.

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Mary Beard
  • Historian Mary Beard is professor of classics at Cambridge University
  • A Point of View broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST

"Am I allowed to write in purple ink?" one will eventually ask (the last of a string of questions that begin "Am I allowed…", all of them exposing nerves and a desire for reassurance more than any real lack of information). "Yes," you say patiently, "but do you really need to write in purple?" Then you remember that none of these poor kids will have written anything much by hand over the past three years, beyond the occasional signature - or exam paper. So you quickly backtrack to suggest that they practice actually writing for three hours to get their hands in training. Presumably some time in the future, the country's universities will be equipped with ranks of secure, internet-disabled keyboards onto which the students will tap out their answers, without straining their unpractised muscles, but it will be well after my time.

On the day of any exam that I myself have set, I have to turn up in the exam room for the first 20 minutes or so (feeling, frankly, a bit of a prat in an academic gown). That's just in case any student has a query about the paper, or in case something has gone terribly wrong. You dread the moment when a student puts up their hand, having taken a quick look at the questions, and says: "I'm sorry, but our set book was Sophocles' Antigone, not the Oedipus" and asking that you put things right, instantly. It has, I'm afraid, happened.

Once the students have written their papers, then they let their hair down and we have to do the marking. I know that I can't really complain at the quantity of it. This year, when I am marking the finalists, I have only roughly 100 scripts to grade (if I compare that with the vast numbers you have to do at GCSE, this is nothing). All the same, it looks daunting when you have them piled up for the first time on your kitchen table.

After 35 years in this business, I have my own little rituals. First of all I sniff around the papers, dipping in, working out which questions have attracted the punters and which haven't (otherwise known as procrastination). Then I start with the first question and mark all the answers to that, then go on to the second question, and so on. When I've finished that process, I go back to each individual script and look it again as a whole, before giving it a mark. That probably takes about 45 minutes for each one, maybe 75 hours in all.

Exam hall at UCL

At least, that's what it takes until you come across one of those impenetrably illegible ones (another consequence of no practice wielding a pen). There is, I should say, a stern warning plastered on the front page of our exam papers: "Candidates who do not write legibly may find themselves at a grave disadvantage." But, to be honest, this has about as much effect as the "Now wash your hands" sign in the average public lavatory. You can end up struggling to decode some student's scrawl for almost as long as they took to write it.

So why persevere? Why not penalise? Well, partly it's because their career hangs on these exams - so you'd have to be very hard-hearted actually to inflict that "grave disadvantage". But for me it's a bit of a personal thing too. The truth is, my own son is one of those with ghastly handwriting, and I am forever grateful that some examiner at his university took the trouble to extract the sense out of his mess. As I sit there taking hours to do the same, I find myself muttering periodically: "I am doing this for this person's Mum".

But there's another side to the exam business. Never mind all the anxiety, overwork and stress that exams breed, or all those nagging questions about what exactly exams are for (which I've never found as easy to answer as I'd like). There is all the same something reassuringly traditional about the whole process. In fact, Mr Gove and his friends might like to take note that even endemic complaints about poor performance have been with us since at least the mid-19th Century when written exams, as we know them, first became fashionable in this country.

Woman sitting exam

I'm not saying that nothing has changed over the last 150 years. For a start, all universities now have what they rather grandly call "alternative modes of assessment" as well as sudden-death exams. Students can take at least part of their degree by assessed essays or dissertation - it's what you'd call "coursework" if it was done in a school. And we now have whole areas of study that were unheard of back then, from particle physics to ancient homosexuality, while we have ditched others. I still wonder which students in Cambridge 100 years ago took the "Sanitary Science Examination", but they were faced with a whole array of such early 20th Century questions as: "Describe in detail the method you would adopt for the disinfection of ships in relation to plague, cholera and yellow fever." Must have been useful, I guess.

But a lot about the whole ritual is still instantly recognisable, from way back. In my own university it's not just the dons prancing round in their gowns. It goes right down to the almost unchanging layout and typeface of the exam papers (some are so similar that at first glance, without looking carefully at the date, you'd be hard put to distinguish the papers of 1870 from those of 1970). And, in my subject, it extends to some of the questions too. Some version of "explain the immediate cause of the rupture between Caesar and the Senate in 49 BC", as classics students were bidden in 1883, will - I'm sure - be appearing on ancient history papers across the world this summer, although I bet (and hope) the answers are very different. Occasionally, I must admit, the similarities can be deceptive. When geography students were asked in 1915 to "discuss the evidence for changes of climate in historic times", I don't think they would have interpreted "climate change" quite as our students would today.

The most familiar thing, though, about exams in the past is the general curmudgeonly gloom that greeted the students' efforts. We now live with the myths of a golden age of academic achievement years ago, of currently falling standards and of their evil twin "grade inflation" (I'm not saying "grade inflation" can never happen, but people do seem to be oddly resistant to the idea that students now could possibly do better, or know more, than they did a century ago). It comes as a bit of an eye opener to find dons and commentators back then regularly lamenting, just like now, what the students didn't know or couldn't do.

An Oxford University student celebrates the end of finals An Oxford University student celebrates the end of finals

Digging back through my own department records to the 1850s, I found a huge fuss about how completely useless these poor boys were (and they were then only boys) in the ancient history component of their classics degree. They couldn't do it, moaned the dons, they didn't put enough effort in, and the examination itself wasn't fit for purpose. Even those who got the top, first class, degrees in classics overall, had all failed the ancient history element, their average mark between 1853 and 1855 being 35%. Those worried about grade inflation might reflect on the fact that you could then romp away with a first even if you had failed a major paper. I don't think it would happen now.

I'd love to know what the truth was and whether, in our terms, those ancient history answers really were as bad as the bleating dons cracked them up to be. But, sadly, it's next to impossible to test these claims. Now our students' scripts get shredded after a decent interval, and the ones from the distant past are almost entirely lost. We have the questions in other words, but we'll never know how the students answered them.

We can be pretty sure, though, that the young gentlemen of the 1850s would have been writing with their elegant fountain-pens, in a clearly legible, beautifully formed hand.

Or can we? Maybe that's another nostalgic fiction.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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Here is a selection of your comments.

More than 50 years ago, in Communist Czechoslovakia, my Primary School maths teacher was so convinced that I was a half-genius, that he sent me to a regional round of the "Maths Olympiad." Quite early on after the exam had started, my mind simply went blank. I continued sitting in the exam room, however, staring into the nearby wood, my mind frozen as if, vainly hoping that some sort of inspiration would waft my way. Nothing. Eventually, I handed in a practically blank paper. After that, every few years or so, I have a vivid nightmare -- I'm sitting in the same room and staring at the same trees. I am certainly most grateful that my own children (in Canada) had different experiences from those that Mary Beard has described. Since that awful Olympiad experience, I have become a lifelong believer in ongoing forms of assessment .

Anna Kroutl, Ceske Budejovice, Czech Rep

The worst part for me, as a lecturer, setter, and marker, is the horrible sinking feeling about a third of the way through the marking process, when you look at the sequence of utterly wrong-headed answers you've seen so far, and start questioning your teaching abilities (or even your sanity). "Why do so many of these students believe X when I spoke about the exact opposite, Y?" "Did I actually mention Y in the lectures?" (Go back and look -- yes, I did). "What could I have done better with these lectures?" (The slides say Y. I spent a good ten or fifteen minutes pushing the point of Y, in context, with good arguments. In the lecture context, there isn't anything more I can see that I could do.) I think it is hard to come to terms with the effects of experience. Experience arrives so slowly that you rarely appreciate the benefits and differences in thinking and outlook resulting from it. What seems clear and obvious from 20 years ahead is lost in the noise of new ideas that you try to inculcate in your students, and it doesn't make it back out of them in the exams. It can be very hard to take that step backwards and appreciate the quality of the answers in the context of the student's experience. I envy Prof. Beard, in that her students are expected, as students of the humanities, to be able to express themselves in prose. Mine, as scientists, are not, and are not explicitly taught to do so. This makes even the simplest of discussion questions difficult and painful to read. On the other hand, if the attempts I see at the logical presentation of algorithms is anything to go by, I suspect that the good Professor's students' English may be just as painful. For what it's worth, I wholeheartedly apologise to my lecturers and examiners for the pain that I caused them in the early '90s. I am suffering for it now.

Hugo Mills,

I am sure the legible, beautifully formed hand is as much, or more, a myth than the higher standards. The worst single part about being a historian of the Victorian period, as I am, is struggling with often totally indecipherable letters, the handwriting permitting one to pick out maybe a word or two - or maybe none. Some writers do indeed have easily read handwriting the majority make it an average kind of struggle, and a significant minority cannot be read at all.

Rosemary Hannah, Mauchline, Ayrshire

The obsession with how much better students of yesteryear were - based on old exam papers - always puzzles me. I can't make much sense of the average mid-century grammar school exam paper, it's true. But then I doubt many of the students sitting that would have dealt well with a modern GCSE paper. The language, the methodology, the uses the skill will later be put to... none of it has stayed the same. It is no longer necessary to be able to regurgitate the right answer, or at least it shouldn't be. This generation can find out anything at the click of a button; what matters is their ability to use the technology, make sense of the information and, most importantly, to determine the validity of what they have discovered. The ability to form reasoned, informed opinions must be the greatest gift education can give to anyone.

Jessica Powell, Cwmbran, Wales

A late entrant to teaching, I found exam invigilation a strangely ritual task, even down to uttering phrases like "Turn over your papers" and "Put your pens down" - like Professor Beard in her gown, I always feel faintly ridiculous saying them!

Megan, Cheshire UK

I can't honestly see what the point of an exam is. Like a CRB check, it only gives a picture of what the student had crammed for on the day, not a reflection of their overall ability. Learning isn't about exams, it is about understanding what you are learning and putting it into action. Continuous assessments are a much better reflection of a learner's ability to understand what they are being taught. I've done a couple of courses with the OU, neither of which required an exam, just continuous assessment. I found the whole process much more relaxed and my tutor could give me the feedback I needed to make sure that the next piece of work would be better. I'm now studying a veterinary pharmaceutical course which will require an exam and how on earth I'm supposed to remember everything I have no idea, so not very confident at the moment. I've also just done a piece of written work for 2 hours and the recently diagnosed ganglion [abnormal twist of nerves] in my predominant wrist is now extremely painful, which means I will need special attention... oh what a day to look forward to!

Jan Smout, London UK

As a current student at a top London university sitting exams in this current period (and shamefully procrastinating by reading these articles), I can't help but agree with some of Mary Beard's sentiments. For one, it seems a paradox that universities have such a new emphasis on the use of 'modern' ways of assessment and teaching, whether this be through online platforms such as KEATS (for King's College, London) or Moodle (University College London) or through the use of slideshows and recordings in lectures. Yet, when it comes to exams the notion that there should be a 'modern' way of doing them, whether via computer or via new forms of coursework, is discarded and we return to a clandestine tradition of making students work to answer a set of questions, a tradition that shows no signs of changing. Competition plays a part in this, however, as to be seen to 'modernise' and indeed move to coursework is seen as attractive for some students, but leads to accusations of 'dumbing down' of the assessment process. Until a middle ground is reached, I doubt students will truly be able to reach their full potential - the only potential they can demonstrate comes from memorising, regurgitating and writing an answer based on a question that could make or break their degree.

Stephen, London, United Kingdom

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