29 Feb

This is a good time of the year to reflect on examinations – their process and their purpose. And the stress they advent, the consequences they leave in their wake. It is also a good time to question the disproportionate impact it has on our lives.

Examinations, obviously are designed to test for knowledge gained during a course of study. Impersonal and mighty, they stand in judgment. Do well in the hour or three, the year is validated. Slip up, and it feels as if all opportunities in life are snuffed out. This view of examinations gives it undue importance and creates a huge amount of stress.

Competence is more than mere certification, and it may not be wise on the part of either the recruiter or candidate to vest so much in any one certificate. Assessments are mere goal posts, and should not be given more importance than that. It is never easy to be judged – an act of subjugation in itself. To acknowledge that there is a human power greater than oneself who can validate us, and thus determine our future. Err.. no. The testing mechanism only extends as far as demonstrated abilities go – no further. No test can ever change who you are, or what you can achieve in life. It can only record and certify what was demonstrated on the day.

Examinations of course are designed to be as objective as possible, though formative assessments such as via the CCE (continuous and comprehensive evaluation) do tend to have a strong subjective element to them. Most standardised exams, such as the class X, GCSE or SATs are designed to help most candidates perform to the best of their ability, and are therefore targeted at the average student from an average school. Competitive examinations on the other hand need to differentiate between students and are designed in such a manner that the best students score much more than average students. Honest meritocracy demands that at the cutoff point, the chances of a tie are reduced – so the test must give clear results. This is why competitive tests are more ‘difficult’ as they are designed to test for stretch, not competence. Qualifying tests are designed differently – to look for ability and skills. Clubbing these various kinds of testing under one umbrella of examinations is not helpful either for the academic or for the candidate.

The preparation – both in terms of examination attitude and content is quite different for each type of assessment. The academic too needs to design testing to meet various criteria – reliability, validity, transferability among others. Often, it is harder work to prepare a good test, administer and mark it than it is to study and take the same. Failure in an examination is part of the process of learning. Education systems that moved away from failure reporting – including those that reported failure as ‘deferred success’ – have suffered.

We learn more from failure than from success. Failure in an examination can mean many things. It can at the very least point out to us that our preparation was not aligned to the needs of the exam. (No, failure does not tell us that we are dumb). It may show us that we need different habits or tools of study, or it may inform us that the content was not delivered appropriately. Failure, especially repeated failure could possibly also mean that our aptitude or interest does not suit this particular area of study. It is better to fail at the start than to lead a life of miserable series of failure in struggling to pursue a career with no aptitude in that area. Failure is also a test of one’s determination – both to strive on towards one’s goals and also to find different pathways to reach those goals. Failure is an opportunity to find gaps and plug them.

For there is never only one route to a successful life. Examinations are but a stepping stone to discovering pathways. In an ideal world, they should be an everyday exercise – the equivalent of a little check in the mirror as you go past. Stressing over examinations is a misdirection of energy and attention span. These little beasts cannot be allowed to take over lives – they are meant to be facilitators to finding our niche.

This article was published in the Times of India blogs on February 22, 2012



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