Image description: Oxford students in sub fusc outside Exam Schools.
Like every good Oxford student, I spent my Hilary term holidays panicking about what was going to happen in Trinity. Collections were the immediate threat, but really only a foreshock before the destabilising earthquake of prelims. Second years and particularly third years struggling with their finals may scoff at such concerns with the oft-repeated phrase ‘prelims don’t matter’ as well as ‘collections really really don’t matter’. Maybe they don’t but let’s be honest, most of us probably wouldn’t be here if we were the type of person that didn’t feel a deep lack of self-worth at a low mark on a trivial exam. I’ve managed to somewhat regain my calm but realised that there’s a reason I felt so panicked: I had no idea how to do well in collections or prelims.
No, it’s not just because I hadn’t done enough revision though that coincidentally is also true. The problem is a specific one, and unfortunately given my chosen subject only really applies to those studying humanities. Prelims, and collections, revolve around handwriting essays in pressured timed conditions, whereas our weekly work revolves around typing up two-thousand word essays with detailed references and the benefit of SOLO and the thirteen million items in the Bodleian library system to help you. These are obviously completely different working conditions with skill in one not easily translating into skill in the other.
Most of us would’ve been used to the somewhat formulaic A level system, in which at the start of the year the teacher would hand out some exemplar essays for you to ponder over and wonder how you would reach the esoteric heights of band five. Classes were structured in such a way that what you were meant to be doing in the final exam was discussed at length, as your work was compared to a mark scheme. This at least left you with a clear goal in terms of what you were meant to be aiming towards and lead to less of an existential terror of the unknown. ‘A-ha,’ I might hear you say, ‘Oxford is a place of learning and spiritual development that has been here for centuries, we aren’t meant to focus on fitting into boxes like in school, hence it’s only right that we don’t spend our time like we did in A-levels.’
This is wrong for a couple of reasons. First of all, as I will detail later, I don’t think we should go back to A-level style teaching wholly, but that doesn’t mean the way it works now can’t be improved. Secondly, claiming that upon coming to Oxford we are free from the intellectual constraints that held us back in secondary school is somewhat true, but then it is also a fact that our exams are marked by examiners who have an idea of what they want to see. Maybe that idea is broader and includes wanting to see how we think not just the answers we come up with, but at the end of the day we still are meant to be playing to the tune of other people to a certain extent. So why is it that it’s left so late for us to find out how to actually carry out this task in an exam?
I’ve managed to somewhat regain my calm but realised that there’s a reason I felt so panicked: I had no idea how to do well in collections or prelims.
Some would argue that it’s the nature of the Oxford educational experience that we’re meant to be pressured, that due to the sheer amount of stuff we have to learn in first year we don’t have time to be going over small things like exam technique. Whilst it may be regrettable that we go into Trinity term with basically no idea how to complete the exams, it’s a worthy sacrifice given the additional benefit of learning so much in term time.
I think this reasoning is pretty flawed given the changes that could be implemented to help freshers with prelims could be pretty small but still have a big impact. In my opinion, it would at least be helpful for some example written essays to be given out relatively early in the course, not necessarily so we can learn to copy them but simply so we have even a basic idea of what we are meant to be doing that we can build on. Moreover, doing typed essays every week does probably allow us greater ability to understand and explore our subject intellectually, but I don’t see how it would hurt to have us for one or two weeks a term do written essays that get marked feedback. And yes, it could be argued that collections serve this purpose, but it’s always a benefit for us to get an idea of this earlier and be given more opportunities to understand what we’re meant to do in the final exam. Moreover, particularly for a joint schools subject like PPE, the nature of the course is such that if you get taught a module in Trinity term you’ll never get to have marked feedback through collections before prelims, or you may only get the feedback from collections halfway through Trinity term.
We don’t need to destroy the intellectual space to breathe Oxford affords us in order to make prelims a slightly less stressful and mysterious experience
We don’t need to destroy the intellectual space to breathe Oxford affords us in order to make prelims a slightly less stressful and mysterious experience. With a little guidance on what we’re actually meant to be doing in the exam, all we’ll need to worry about is revising all the content, managing extra-curriculars on top and navigating the intricacies of university social hierarchies. Piece of cake.
Image credit: Mike Knell