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The Examined Casualty

Last week I attended an ‘Emergency First Aid at Work’ training course. I had minor concerns about whether I would be able to use the defibrillator correctly (nailed it) and whether we’d be made to look at gory images of lacerations (we were, but my eyes were averted). What I wasn’t concerned about, however, was whether I was going to walk out with a certificate in First Aid or not – the University had paid for me to attend this course so therefore, naturally, I should pass, right?

Wrong.

Fifteen minutes into the course, Terry (a charming 68-year old Brummy who had spent the last forty years training people in First Aid) let us all know that at the end of the day, there was going to be an exam. It had twenty questions and it was multiple choice. And yes, people had failed it, and if we did, we would have to come back next week and sit it again.

Panic immediately set in. Suddenly, what had become a semi-jolly from work took me back ten years to my time at university when I clung onto every word the lecturer said when he was covering something on the exam. My hand sprang into action and I wondered why they had only given us three pages to write notes on.

Every time something on the exam was mentioned, Terry did his little hand gesture telling us to write it down. I spent my lunch break revising the notes I had already written. As the end of the day approached, I stopped listening to Terry and started re-reading over my ‘exam notes’. We sat the exam and, lo and behold, we all passed (in fact, most of us got 100%).

As I drove home, I thought about the switch that had occurred when we learnt of our exam-based fate. Would I have worked as hard if the exam hadn’t been mentioned until lunch time? Or just sprung on us at the last minute? Would I still have taken notes? The answer to these questions is ‘yes’- I had signed up to learn about First Aid and I was keen and ready.

I know a lot of academics feel strongly that exams are a good form of assessment. And, a well-written and designed exam can be – but one is never taught how to write an exam. Like all things, some are good at it and some aren’t. Most of the exams I had personally experienced have been a regurgitation of information. Is it possible to teach teachers how to design a good exam?

A final thought: for the vast majority of people, exams cause some level of panic. I accept that they are an efficient way to assess students, but what can we do to reduce the tension they bring? I came across this article yesterday which provides a brilliant example of how a teacher ‘instills the belief that they have practised the hardest maths that they have ever had to face, so why be scared of an exam?’, which is a novel approach and something I feel we should start putting into practice with our students.  

Amy Palmer