Exams – Downsides and Ups

My thoughts after reading the 58-page Foreword penned by C.P. Snow (described as ‘… a massive and contentious presence in the twentieth century.’) The examination under scrutiny was the Mathematical Tripos conducted by Cambridge University, UK. (The British were likened to Chinese for their high prioritisation on examinations.)

The unfortunate downside to an exam based system is a mechanical dullness stifling the joy of learning and its accompanying creativity. Snow described Hardy as a ‘racehorse’ and the person training him for the Tripos as ‘sublimely uninterested in the subject itself.’ It is very likely that this regime ‘… effectively ruined serious mathematics in England for a hundred years.’ (p.22-23).  The role modelling was there all right, but only in a fixed function, that of Tripos extraordinaire. I am not sure how many can bear to live life like that…

Conversely, the exam does have its merits. It is at least a system to differentiate, on an agreed basis, who (at that point in time) should proceed up the educational chain. It is a wonderful prelude to those who would be in operational jobs. In considerable portions, one needs to be drilled in the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and execute accordingly. The worker in such a role is often prized for their ability to execute their task as quickly as possibly. Finally, the exam trains us in handling a specific type of stress; the type of stress that forces us to make split minute (if not split second) decisions.