May 18, 2005

The education system is a big pile of rubbish


No, but seriously. How and why should exams determine how "intelligent" or good at a subject we are. Exams teach you nothing. Learning for exams is a process of peaking at the right time, short-term memory-wise, and then forgetting everything the day after the exam (or in some cases the moment you leave the hall). As someone with a pretty decent short-term memory, I benefit from this system rather nicely, but it is ridiculously flawed. I will leave this university after 3 years with a degree in physics, but with approximately the same amount of knowledge as I had at A level.

Now before this moves on to a rant about how I would never have applied for physics if I knew it was going to be mosty dry, seemingly abstract applied maths (oops, too late) let me pull back. This doesn't apply just to our course, it applies to everyone (at least, everyone doing science – not so sure about arts students). Whatever you are studying now, think back to what you were doing at A level. I can almost guarentee that you will be able to remember quite a lot of what you studied then, with a little thought and maybe a brief glance over your notes. Not so any more. A prime example of this is the Solid State Physics I exam we poor physicists took in April. Two weeks later whilst revising another module there was some overlap, but none of us (out of about 5 students, all good candidates for 2:1 or better) could remember a simple derivation we had learned by heart for the exam. Revision provides you with no long term knowledge.

So what would be better? What would make that piece of paper you receive at the end of it all worth more, or at least more representative of your ability? I would say that it is obvious – continuous assessment throughout the year – small assignments every week or two. It would encourage us to study more during the first two terms of the year, from which we could gain longer-lasting knowledge than that achieved by cramming the night before an exam. Sure, keep exams. It's a reasonable way to make sure that someone hasn't simply been leeching the work of his or her peers throughout the year, but I would suggest that they should be worth no more than 50% of every module.

Ok, so uni learning is supposed to be independent, but motivation can be hard to come by when you have no reason to work for most of the year. Give us that reason and we will become much more productive (well, most of us). We may moan about it at the time, but we'll be a lot better prepared when the exams roll around. In our first year we had a module called Physics Problems – 6 CATs (standard size phyiscs course), 100% assessed. Problem sheets were provided by every module and a certain number had to be completed each week to get the credit. Similarly, a portion of our maths module that year was obtained from problem questions. Why does that not continue throughout the degree? Why isn't it worth more?

The current education system basically teaches us one thing, providing we survive it – how to cope with the stress caused exams. It's that or go insane. Our degree certificates are symbolic not of our successful pursuit of knowledge or enlightenment, but rather of our ability to survive in a system centred around reducing us to burned out, twitching, and occasionally dribbling zombies once a year, every year, for the duration of our course.

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  1. I can remember loads of what I had to know for my second year essay, and lots from my history module (largely assessed), but sod all else that I'm supposed to have learnt this year

    18 May 2005, 17:10

  2. but then again I've been known to get my boyfriend's name wrong

    18 May 2005, 17:13

  3. I feel your pain. I suffered from this pretty badly, terrible exam results, but almost the best project results on my course. In some ways, that's better than the other way around because the practical stuff is what you actually need for a job, not what they test in exams.

    Unfortunately the other way around would have given my a better overall mark :(

    18 May 2005, 17:16

  4. I totally agree mate, its all about what you can remember on the day…and how you deal with the stress of the exam room…i know i always get really nervous and forget stuff when i have exams in the Butterworth hall

    18 May 2005, 17:47

  5. Agree with you 100%. In fact I was planning to do a rant almost identical to that.

    One thing I would say is that there is a difference between being spoonfed, and being motivated into working

    At school was assessed all the time and had to keep working at it, but much of that work was private study, similar to what I've done at uni (when I've done it)

    18 May 2005, 17:54

  6. I usually do fairly well in exams and not so well in assessed work (or rather in Labs – cos they suck too). However that doesn't mean I don't despise them. With regards to Mr Seagrave – yes – being spoonfed is bad, but thats not what happened at A level (not that you are saying it did). The way I revised at A level is very much the same as how I revise now, but the difference was by the time I came to do it back then I already had a good grasp of the material. I am not motivated by my course because I find it all rather dry, abstract and boring (as mentioned already) and therefore I tend not to work unless there is a looming deadline.

    That is the problem. In fact, I enjoy doing problem questions and the like – when you get them right you get a nice feeling of satisfaction, along with fairly quick feedback once they have been marked. This gives you an idea of how you are progressing, and how much harder you need to work to, for example, achieve a 1st at the end of it all.

    Instead we have this situation – We go through the year not really learning anything – just turning up to lectures, making notes, and forgetting about them. (If that.) There is no progression, no steady buildup of understanding. I suppose that is what seperates the people who get the 1sts from everyone else – that willingness to work on stuff for no credit when they could be enjoying themselves. Maybe what I want is unachievable, but given sufficient impetus I think it could be done.

    18 May 2005, 18:06

  7. Again I agree with you, I have been thinking recently what I have achieved and got out of the last three years year. The answer is a lot, but most of that comes from personal development from living away from home and things I've done in the Students' Union.

    From the University side, what have I got, an impressive ability to stay up all night and write a 2000 essay from scratch (no previous knowledge) and get a 2:1 or thereabouts.

    The teaching of my course has been unmotivating and uninteresting, and for somebody who ultimatley isn't that interested in economics I quickly lost interest for more exciting activities.
    This is extremely likely to cost me in six weeks time, I don't expect to score better than a 2:2, which is less than what I am capable of, and leaves me with a slight feeling I have wasted three years!

    This is made worse from the fact I know that I am ultimately a motivated person, whether that is through enjoyment (the subject could be made to be vaguely interesting), feeling likely I've achieved something (receiving regular updates on progress, and marks, preferably that count) or pressure (essay deadline/exam soon in 12 hours). Any one of these makes me work, and work well. University hasn't achieved any of these with any regularity, although in its defence this is partly because I chose the wrong course.

    I personally think what separates people who get firsts is that generally they are lucky enough to be inspired enough by their subject that by working at it, they are enjoying themselves enough to not want to be doing other things quite so much.

    I also believe that a very large number of people feel the same way about this, it is time to start demanding continual and varied assessment I think, and forcing the University into a dramatic rethink of exactly how they go about teaching.

    18 May 2005, 19:19

  8. I totally agree that the way my course (Computer Science) is taught provides me with no motivation to learn whatsoever. I see my housemate (doing History) preparing for 3 or 4 seminars a week, working several hours a night. I mean, I wouldnt mind doing that, but I have no reason to.

    I've been at this University for three years and (apart from my 3rd year project supervisor) I have never come in contact with a member of staff from my department. My housemate goes to seminars and the tutors knows him on first name terms. No one knows who I am.

    Maybe this is partly my fault, but I think there is something wrong with the system where I am expected to turn up to lectures week in week out, sitting there listinening to some big words going in one ear and out the other, and having no interaction whatsoever with any lecturer. It got to the point where I did not need to goto any lectures, there is just no point. All I have do to is dowload notes from the internet in the third term, buy a book and then revise (or learn from scrath) for a few weeks.

    So what is the point of paying however many thousand pounds for my so called education. I might aswell just stay at home for the first two terms and get a job.

    18 May 2005, 20:40

  9. Mr Smith (Agent?): If anything, Computer Science lectures are worse than physics ones, with the obvious exception of CS118 and the incredibly energetic Stephen Jarvis.

    18 May 2005, 23:34

  10. I agree with you 100% on every point you make here. Couldn't put it better myself.

    03 Jun 2005, 20:38

  11. Why thank you :-)

    03 Jun 2005, 23:48

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