Debate: “The Oxford examination system is a good measure of a student’s ability”


When voting on the poll, please select which article you think is the more persuasive and refrain from voting according to your own personal views. 

[yop_poll id=”3″]


by Jess Edwards

As the start of a new term draws ever closer, the unhappy reality of exams once again rears its ugly head and confronts the Oxford student. And it’s not just any term which awaits. No. We have prime exam season before us, with not just the hurdle of collections to clear but the inevitable onslaught of prelims panic, and finalist fever setting in for good.

Perhaps the natural instinct when faced with such adversity is to attack the system which holds this power over us. Behaving in such a manner is the ultimate defensive mechanism; we effectively create a way to deal with the worst case scenario. If we don’t do well we can trot out the inevitable ‘anyway’ defence: ‘Don’t worry about not inviting me, I didn’t want to come anyway’, ‘It’s fine, I didn’t want to marry you anyway’, ‘It doesn’t matter, I don’t value the examination system anyway’. However, we have to be tested somehow, and here is why I think the Oxford system deserves some slack.

At the end of the day, the immense pressure every student is eventually placed under when they sit their finals is both representative of their overall ability and necessary due to the nature of the typical Oxford course. These pressure-packed situations separate out the very best students, and one might also argue studying at a certain level means that an exam of a corresponding pressure level comes as part of the package. Another bonus is that the ability of dealing with pressure, acquired by these exams, is transferable to the real world and a trait employers will recognise. And yet, it is all too easy to forget that the Oxford system has other less pressurised examination routes such as the submission of extended essays and dissertations, essentially ‘coursework’. Thus, we do actually have the best of both worlds, something we should be grateful for.

Onto the exam papers themselves. Some say that preparation for these papers requires a detrimental narrowing in a student’s method of thinking, especially in arts’ subjects. However, from my, albeit limited, experience of the examination format I think it is fair to say that they are designed to encourage the pursuance of individual paths of thought. What struck me most when browsing past papers was the sheer variety and number of questions in one exam paper. In one where the candidate was required to answer just three, there were 27 essay questions where the last was:

“27. Make a case for the significance of any topic which you consider to have been overlooked in the setting of this paper.”

In fact, one of my main criteria to fulfil this summer is that of ‘originality of thought’ which shows me how little the University desires to be a limiting factor on my education and the development of my ability.

Another facet of the system which is worth considering is the specifically Oxonian routine of Collections at the beginning of each term. Now, despite the immense annoyance of the presence of such tests, Collections do have their benefits. They ensure that a student keeps everything ticking over and stays on top of their work – I for one know that I need them as that extra push. Although these regular check-ups train us to think in particular ways, this can be said of any examination applied across an institution. If anything, Collections enable the student to familiarise themselves with exam criteria and technique in the way that ‘mock exams’ do, so that come external exams, they can fully concentrate on the content rather than their method of conveyance.

To sum up, an examination system which pleased one and all, where everyone was excellent in their own way, would create an arbitrary and indecipherable table of rankings. This being said, the Oxford examination system is one which is tailored, as far as possible, to fit the masses whilst ensuring that the best and most hard-working students get the recognition they deserve.


Can it better than this?


By Fergus McAndrews

During the coming term hundreds of students in Oxford will walk into final examination halls, clutching bod-cards and pens, trying to come to terms with the simple fact that over three short hours they will be evaluated on eight weeks of hard work and countless hours of study.  It seems a little strange, right?

The fact of the matter is that finals don’t measure what they’re designed to measure: ability and knowledge.

The first criticism leveled against final examinations is that they are too short.  This accusation is worth thinking about.  In an obvious way, the fact that you have just one hour to write each of three essays limits the amount of time you can spend reflecting on the question.  This has an upside and a few downsides.  On the upside, it motivates students to enter finals feeling so secure in their knowledge of the topics they revised, that they believe they can quickly apply that familiarity and depth to whatever the question at hand.  This is not insignificant.

Now let’s look at the downsides.  The first and most obvious is that the three hour time limit restricts the amount of knowledge students are able to display, so that a lucky but ill-prepared student can score just as well or better than his less fortunate but more studious counter part.  We’ve all heard people walk out of exams where none of the questions quite clicked, or, on the other hand, where the questions happened to be exactly on the right topics, from exactly the right perspectives.

Because finals are so limited both temporarily and substantially, they not nearly discerning enough with regard to the breadth and variety of knowledge that the university asks students to accumulate.  This introduces an unwarranted and unnecessary element of chance into the marks.

The second problem with the time limits is that it restricts the type of answers you can give.  Students don’t have the time to develop new conceptual tools to deal with the question in examination conditions, which means that they are limited to the vocabulary of concepts established in ‘the literature’ to attack the problem.

This kind of restriction means that students rarely have the opportunity to demonstrate their creative abilities.  More importantly, because of the ubiquitous focus on finals, they are also limited in the degree to which they can develop these abilities at all.  Studying for finals, then, can mean giving up the interrogation of a more interesting but less conventional line of thinking simply because there will be no hope of conveying it quickly enough in exam settings.

There’s another oft-discussed weakness in finals, which all finalists acknowledge with a certain anxiety. There is a disconnect between what students learn and what the university examines us on.  This disconnect arises both because of the individual student’s unique interests and because of his/her tutor’s area of expertise.  There is no doubt that tutors who write the exams focus both the exams and their tutorials on whatever they think is most important in the paper, thereby giving their students something of a unique advantage.  Likewise, students are arbitrarily advantaged or disadvantaged by how tutors teach their papers.

In short, your mark in finals will reflect any number of arbitrary factors (e.g. how lucky you were in what questions came up, how quickly you can write, whether your tutor wrote the paper, whether you caught a cold the other day) alongside the more legitimate variables of ability and knowledge. And all this is aside from the uncomfortable truth that your papers will be marked by tired, irritable and bored academics.

Come on Oxford.  We can do better than this.


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