My A-Z of Reading: O is for Open Book

December 5, 2016

Should an examination be a test of memory, or of a student’s broader ability to apply knowledge and understanding? When I took exams in literature at school and at university many years ago, you were not allowed texts in the exam room. This meant that, as well as knowing the texts thoroughly, and the issues they raised that examiners might ask you to write about, you also had to memorise quite considerable quantities of quotations from those texts in order to support and justify your analysis. How useful was that ‘memory test’ part of my degree qualification, for instance?

When it came to the examination for my masters, I met the ‘take-away’ exam, courtesy of Lancaster University English Department. You took away the exam paper and came back a fortnight later to hand in your four essays; you’d had the time to re-read any text, any critic, plan, draft, write and re-write your essays, and the examiners knew that and expected and marked accordingly. No memory test there, but a serious test of one’s ability to analyse, theorise and evidence, as well as think originally.

When I first started teaching there was 100% coursework in both English Language and Literature; that worked for a while, but depended on committed and conscientious teachers, and there was too much temptation – pressure perhaps, particularly where parents were paying for results – to game the system. So that went, sadly. Incidentally, since those days, I have no personal evidence that students’ results are globally any better or worse. And once again, students were being graded on their ability to understand, to analyse and to evidence.

In came open-book exams: invigilated, timed sessions, but students could have their set texts with them; no memory test, but a test of understanding, analysis, and ability to evidence. Such a system had its downside: weaker students in particular saw the text as a crutch, a prop, and tended to spend far too much time searching for quotations instead of writing for marks. A copy of a text was no substitute for textual knowledge. And again, teachers were pressured to play the system: annotation was allowed, and how much was too much annotation? Who was going to police this? Students ended up with every available inch of their text crammed with notes and essay plans; weaker ones again spent too much time accessing these and not enough time writing.

So we came to the era of clean texts: schools had to spend money buying and storing sets of books to be kept solely for exam use, and again, quis custodiet? So everything came full circle and we are now back at the era of memory tests once again: learn the quotations your teacher tells you, and, if you are a weak student, try and cram every one in to your essay, whether it fits or not.

One of the greatest flaws of the English education system, I felt, during my time as part of it, was the amount of time spent chopping and changing and re-inventing the wheel: students were never served by this; teachers weren’t either, so who was? Exam boards, publishers, consultants all made a mint. And nobody really answered the question: what, exactly, are we trying to assess in a literature exam, and what is the best way to do this?

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