Tony Gurr

LEARNing to Cope with Exams (Guest Post from Laurence Raw)

In Adult Learners, Assessment, Guest BLOGGERS, Our Universities on 24/07/2013 at 3:04 pm

Assessment (David Boud quote) Ver 02


Many learners from all over Europe will have taken exams this summer; the results might yet not be known.  My fourteen-year-old niece had this experience, and unfortunately she did not do so well.  I realized that the results bore little or no relationship to her intellectual capabilities; she obtained a poor grade on account of what might be termed TESTaphobia.  As I listened to her, I recalled my days at school and university, when I was so scared of exams that I used to imagine myself suffering from chest pains, so that I could go to hospital and obtain some kind of tranquillizers.


I read recently that British Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted that “exams matter because motivation matters … Human beings are hard-wired to seek out challenges … the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning”

But what if the need to jump that hurdle prevents learners from achieving success?  What happens to those whose wires are configured in different ways, and might need to discover alternative means of achieving “further endeavours and deeper LEARNing?”  Many websites offer advice as to how to deal with this condition (by learning from experiences, devising a realistic revision schedule, taking time off or relaxing), but they’re actually missing the point.


Assess Lit 03

The only way to change attitudes towards exams is to change the LEARNing cultures in which they take place.  Learners have to understand that passing exams is not simply about “clearing a hurdle,” but rather providing an opportunity for them to express what they have learned.  Educators should help them to approach an exam in a positive frame of mind; rather like an actor giving a performance in front of the camera, they need to perform to the best of their ability.  And even if they do not do as well as they should, exams are not the be-all and end-all of their educational lives; what matters more is that they should feel they have achieved their own personal goals through the courses that they have taken.


Assidere (original meaning) Ver 02


Perhaps it’s time to go back to first principles; to understand that any program of study is not primarily concerned with the exam but with the experience of LEARNing.  This can only be achieved through negotiation; the working out of a series of mutually shared goals that educators and learners alike feel happy to pursue.  As the course unfolds, so everyone should be encouraged to reflect on its usefulness; this might be achieved through discussion, or by encouraging everyone to keep a journal to record feelings and experiences.  Learners can use this as a means to develop their self-esteem, to discover for themselves what they have LEARNed.

In this type of model, the exam functions as an extension of the journal, enabling learners to expound at greater length what they might have already recorded in their journals, and (in an ideal world) thereby manage to deal successfully with their fears.


However this can only be achieved through educator support.  This is one thing that Gove and his fellow-mandarins in politics will never understand: learners can only develop themselves when they feel that they are part of a community.  A piece in The Guardian written by a practising  educator asks whether there is a line to be drawn between ‘helping’ and ‘hindering’ learners; whether too much support for learners taking exams is not counter-productive: “What do they learn about self-motivation and independence?  If we want them to become lifelong learners, don’t they at some point need to learn how to teach themselves?

I think this is a comment of mind-blowing fatuity, implying that there is some kind of distinction to be drawn between “TEACHing,” and “LEARNing.”

In a LEARNing community in which everyone participates and helps one another, the problem of developing motivation simply doesn’t arise.  Learners might have to take exams, but they can approach them in a positive frame of mind if they are supported by their peers as well as their educators.


Assessment (fattening pigs)

The question here is one of shifting focus, of understanding the psychological reasons why learners fear exams, and restructuring the course of study to help deal with them.  However I fear that no one will be too interested in this solution, especially those politicians who believe that standards can be improved through quick fixes.  At the classroom level, however, I think that improvements can be made, or at least I’d like to think so.


Laurence Raw
(aka @laurenceraw on Twitter)
Baskent University – Ankara, Turkey
Editor: Journal of American Studies of Turkey

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