Devil’s Advocate: Should grades be based on exams instead of coursework?



Hands up all of you students out there who want to be academics? Please make it known that you long to spend your days trawling through archives and libraries, spending hours on end on windswept hillsides armed only with a raincoat, measuring tape and unwavering sense of intellectual duty, pursuing the search for the incontrovertible ‘fact’ or optimum ‘model’.

If so, then truly I salute you and your dedication to your particular field. Nonetheless, I can already predict that you form a noble minority. Our tutors and lecturers rarely make mention of it, but it is ineluctable that most undergraduates are more than happy to jump academic ship once we have our hands on that first degree.

So, if not the eternal classroom, where is it that we envisage ourselves at work in our professional futures? I imagine it is hurrying through the corridors of the FCO at 3am, coffee spilling down an un-ironed shirt, as Russia abruptly announces that it is pulling out of a ceasefire in a far- flung warzone. Reassuring a shaken shareholders’ meeting the day after your company has lost millions of pounds of hard-earnt savings owing to a fresh tumble in retrospectively dodgy stocks. These are the sorts of destinies for which the majority of us are headed.

At those points, what matters are steely nerves, a quick wit and the ability to seem put together and confident off the back of little warning and even less new information. And, yes, to be plain, that is not to mention the capacity to blindly bullshit effectively. The attitude of ‘looking at the matter-in- hand from all angles’ and retreating for a few days to do some background reading before committing even the first thought to paper is so often completely redundant in ‘the real world’. In fact, it is nearly as redundant as the hundreds of pages of arcane scholarship we put ourselves through just so we can secure those degrees we desire.

Allow me to introduce a couple of clarifications here. Firstly, my qualm is not with academic work per se, which is of an immense value that is heeded frustratingly little by people in other sectors. Secondly, nor do I wish to contend with the basic principles of looking at events within a wider context or engaging with in-depth study when the opportunity is present. However, my point is that we live in a world when projects and proceedings can veer dramatically off-course in a flash and subsequently demand split second responses, yet our university’s emphasis on coursework woefully under-prepares us for such a world.

Imagine therefore, a system wherein essays, although mandatory, counted for nothing (this model naturally does not apply to all subjects) and everything depended on an exam. They of that laudable breed who wished to one day take the place of their professors would still be free to delve as deeply as possible into their subjects to produce unassailable arguments and theories. Even better, they would feel more comfortable to creatively break orthodoxies, assured that a gallant yet ultimately questionable attempt would not cost them dearly. The rest of us, still held to some sort of account by tutors still armed with the opportunity to dissect- and maybe deride- our term- time efforts, would no doubt be committed to getting our respective essays done as quickly as possible. For us, the vital opportunity to engage in relevant extracurricular activities and broaden our knowledge and cultural bases through wider reading or travel would be only extended. The obvious importance to know your subject would still be enshrined in the exam, another final test in cobbling together something respectable in a matter of an hour. We would all leave university considerably more personally adapted to the field we were intending on entering, from ivory towers to glass skyscrapers.

As regrettable as it is, the world does not turn by the power of deliberation. Philosophers are not kings. It runs on a thousand snap-decisions made by people who very often- whatever their formal education and position in society- have very little idea of what they are precisely doing and who are working with ingenuity, initiative and easily-adopted conviction. In this imperfect world, these qualities, alongside argumentative skills and a broad general knowledge base to facilitate optimum decision-making, are the stuff of leaders. Modules which are 60% coursework and 40% exam are not fostering such qualities. Change that to 100% exam (or as close to as possible) and the chances would be much higher.


Every student knows the feeling. The nervous wait before you are called in. Abandoning your coat or jacket at the back of the room, despite the temperature having the amazing capability of plummeting from warm to freezing in a matter of minutes. Trying to find the right desk and exam paper combination and checking that your assorted writing implements work. Sitting there with nothing to do but fidget while the invigilators look for absentees who are probably either still asleep or are in the wrong exam. After what seems like an eternity of taking labels off of water bottles and looking around to see who is this exam’s Mr I-have-twenty-pens, and trying to guess who will be Miss I-need-more-writing-paper. Finally, the invigilator says you can begin. Then you open the exam paper and the real panic sets in.

As simple as the theory of sitting an exam may be- an assessment of a field of knowledge taken within a certain time period- the reality is, as is usually the case, somewhat different. For a start there is often an enormous amount of material which you are required to learn beforehand, of which only a small amount could potentially be tested in the exam. Whether the format of the exam consists of essays, translations or scientific formulae, it could be merely a few pages of the entire textbook or novel that you have spent the last few weeks or months poring over.

This is where it becomes evident that coursework is a far superior method of assessing a student’s progress. Either being given a question directly, or choosing from a selection, the student has a time period far longer than just a few hours in which to complete the work set. Immediately, this relieves the student of potentially under-performing under pressure. The overwhelming experience of the exam environment as well as having to scribble as much as you can about a certain subject can lead to nerve-related forgetfulness of material. It is a classic example of, despite knowing a piece of information well enough to recite it in your sleep, when asked to recall it on the spot (however well you may know it) you instantly forget it. That begs the oft-asked question; are exams a test of memory or knowledge?

Given that the duration of exams is so short, not normally more than a few hours, there are any number of factors which could influence performance during this short space of time, ranging from feeling under the weather to the distractions of having hundreds of students around you, creating a cacophony of exam-related noises. As such, the results of merely a few hours of writing could either directly or indirectly affect your future career path and therefore life as a whole, even though the concept of ‘proper’ adulthood may still seem far away for a student stuck in the stage of no longer being a child but not really a functioning grown up, either.

Meanwhile coursework means that students can manage the time given to them and find out how and when they work best to complete the work set, a task which is much better accomplished in a few weeks than a few hours. With more time being allowed comes the ability to complete the work to a much better standard. This is particularly useful for Arts students, whose essays require the time to word and edit them well and to a high quality standard, which is why the difference between first and last drafts of essays are so remarkable. Whatever the nature of the coursework, though, it takes time to create a piece of work that the student can be proud of; exams rarely do their large bank of knowledge on a certain subject justice.

A piece of work which is completed over several weeks allows for a greater standard of planning, independent learning and in depth reading about of the subject in question. It provides the student with an opportunity to carry out their own research and judge what extra information, whether it is found in a book or in the internet, will be the most of use to the task in hand. Rather than just regurgitating what they have been taught, they can add to it using their own self-learning.

While exams encourage rote learning and unoriginal, parroted thinking coursework is an example of assessed work which demonstrates more developed thinking, amended and polished incrementally. All in all, coursework provides students with a much better set of life skills to prepare them for the ‘proper’ adult world which, in reality, isn’t so far away, and is in itself a constant progression with room for improvement and development at every opportunity.


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