Opportunities in Disguise

There are hundreds of potential ways to assess a student, but we have seen that educational systems must assess students under a rather challenging set of constraints. The result is the traditional examination, a form of assessment which has hardly changed over the decades.

The defining characteristic of traditional examinations is restriction. You are placed in a controlled environment and told to complete a set of questions. You must do this under severe time pressure. You have very limited access to useful resources and materials. You cannot discuss your thoughts with anyone else. Restrictive conditions also apply to other types of exam, such as listening exams, oral exams, or giving a performance or presentation.

Virtually all of the fear, stress, uncertainty, lack of control, and other difficulties associated with exams can be traced back to their restrictive nature. These difficulties mess with your mind and make you highly vulnerable to mistakes. In this environment, exams reward students who can avoid mistakes as much as they reward students who are genuinely talented. You don’t have to be a genius to ace your exams.

This is good news for most of us. With the right preparation, you can easily defend yourself against mistakes. Most students don’t realise this and their exam scores suffer.

Some more good news: it is impossible to restrict you without also restricting what it is possible to examine. The result is that many aspects of exams are highly predictable and thus easy to prepare for. Again, most students don’t realise this.

Why is this important?

Anything which offers you a distinct advantage over other students is very good for your exam scores, since you are assessed by your performance relative to others. Restriction and other difficulties are actually opportunities in disguise. If everything was easy, everyone would get similar scores and your grades would be worthless.

A Quick Note on Competition

Although the exam system implicitly pits students against each other, it is a waste of time and energy to view your peers as competitors. Competition is only ever useful if you can react and respond to the actions of your rivals, or if they are so few in number that you can win by making them lose. None of this is true for exams. This means that you are much better off by focusing on improving yourself and even working with your peers.