What’s the Point of Exams Anyway?

With Easter having come and gone there’s one word which everyone has started hearing a bit more frequently- exams. While the style and timing of exams vary from course to course, every university student invariably faces some form of assessment year on year. They’re not fun. No one likes doing them. What’s even the point of them?

That question is one I’ve definitely asked at some point- albeit usually as exam season starts looming. After all, isn’t the purpose of higher education to develop skills rather than smash through multiple choice questions accurately? You can’t blame a student from feeling somewhat resentful that their ability and dedication to a subject across a whole year is gauged based on an exam sat within a few hours. How can such a snapshot possibly be representative? Nonetheless, having sat exams since school days, we’ve somewhat come to accept them as a necessary part of education. Whether or not that’s true is up for debate.

Looking back to when I sat my GCSE and A-Level exams in high school, I distinctly remember revising for exams feeling like a means to an end. I studied A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics. While I thoroughly enjoyed all of my subjects, none of them were my ‘one true passion’ so to speak. For me, that accolade was claimed entirely by Medicine. However, in order to get to study Medicine, I knew I needed to do well in my A-Level exams. So I studied hard for them. Nonetheless, as I sat at my desk ploughing through organic mechanisms or integrating equations, I couldn’t help but ask myself when I would ever use this information again. Sure, the problem-solving skills I was developing would be useful and transferrable to my degree. However, I had a funny feeling that I’d probably get through my life just fine without using trigonometry again. At the end of the day, I was studying to do well in my exams. That was it.

This changed somewhat at university. From my first few weeks as a fresher, I became acutely aware that everything I was being taught had a practical value for my future career. Even the immunology and biochemistry we were learning would be an essential foundation to practising safely as a doctor. However, this year took that realisation a step further. As third year is my first completely clinical year much of my revision has been focused on using the information to formulate differential diagnoses and decide how to manage an unwell patient. All of this feels pretty relevant to being a doctor.

This has definitely changed my perception of revision and exams. As a medical student, I no longer feel like revising is simply a means to an end. Or that my exams are just there to be passed. Everything I am taught and revise has clinical relevance which will be inherently useful in the future. Therefore, the harder I revise now, the more likely it is that I will end up as a good and safe doctor.

You might ask, it’s all well and good that my course content feels more relevant, but does that change whether exams have a point or not? I think if we’re all being honest, without exams we would be much less likely to revise. In my case, this would mean spending less time developing my clinical knowledge and reasoning- both of which are essential skills to hone. Therefore, perhaps ‘exams’ themselves are still a means to an end- namely to get us to revise and consolidate our knowledge. If you ask me, that’s a pretty worthwhile end to achieve, so if exams force us to get there then maybe they do have some value after all.

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