Comfort Food – Learning Just What We Need to Pass the Exam

You may have noticed some recent news about the shock students going to University face. Some clever people at Cambridge Assessment have done a bit of research. I know what you’re thinking, that might just mean they asked a few people on the bus, which technically is still research, even if it isn’t that representative. But, it did take them 18 months, so give them some credit.

The basic theme is that some pre-university courses can be far too modularised and exam focussed. What this means is that people learn a topic, take the exam and then forget it, moving on to the next one. Dare I say, it was not like that in my day in 1872. Queen Victoria was still on the throne and teaching had to be far more integrated because the exams were not modularised to the same extent. Of course education was widely available to all in those days (except the poor, those without a large mansion in the countryside and people who disagreed with the government). So, at least 50 people a year received education.
I have some sympathy with just teaching to the exam. On the surface, it seems entirely reasonable. I mean why learn what you don’t need and why retain it for longer than you have to? If the exam doesn’t test understanding much either, why bother even understanding it?

As it happens, there are many good reasons why. A singular focus on an exam, combined with limited time and our innate desire to avoid pain, can lead to only ‘learning what you need for the exam’. Whilst learning frequently involves exams (or some other assessment) it’s as well to remember that the exam is not an end in itself. The purpose of learning is to improve or acquire new skills, understanding etc in order to do stuff (like earn a living, create something, self actualise or just survive the next round of redundancies). Fundamentally we learn in order to change (for the better). Learning stuff is not just about memorising (though it will involve that). If you just memorise a whole load of unconnected stuff without understanding how it fits together, it gets rather confused and foggy and it may lead us to the dark side. The mind seems to like to at least partially organise and rationalise stuff and will make up whatever seems reasonable if we are missing key bits (like a conscience).

This can lead to people who are not very good at analysis, problem solving and thinking things through when they meet new situations on their own. That’s because they haven’t been taught underlying principles of how things work and nor can they apply those transferable problem solving skills (because they haven’t practised them). They are instead often just cramming information into their heads to get the exam out the way. But as I said, I have a lot of sympathy with students who are up against time pressure and the demands of, well, a demanding, job.

It is no surprise that Cambridge Assessment therefore recommend some changes that mean things like incorporating into teaching and exam system more critical thinking, exploration, independent study and reading round the subject.

My experience when teaching is that some students frequently ask ‘do I need this for the exam?’. Whilst this is understandable, we need to think more widely than the exam. Doing activities which develop understanding can be exacting; they may also go beyond the specific information content you need for an exam question. However, it will help you recognise the scenario described in the exam question for what it is and also help you understand, analyse and solve problems in real life (well, as real as a safety professional is ever likely to see).

2 thoughts on “Comfort Food – Learning Just What We Need to Pass the Exam

  1. David Towlson Post author

    Hi Lesley – some astute observations; thanks. Learning is ultimately for living – including what we will use in our daily work, stuff that helps us make a more informed choice and stuff that enriches our lives. I look back sometimes and wonder at all the stuff I was taught and whether it was useful or not – especially the school boy Latin and Greek, which I can still partly remember. At the very least it is entertaining to work out the odd word on an ancient stone tablet (or perhaps even a paracetamol tablet). For some things it is difficult to tell whether they will in fact be useful; some things are merely learned to help you progress to the next level. I’m not sure I’ve ever found a use for history, apart from entertainment/enjoyment, but I’m sure the subject must be jolly useful for historians…..

  2. Lesley Holliday

    I agree! There soes need to be a balance in teaching both the essential to pass, but also the wider-reaching appreciation of what it is you are actually learning about.

    I was given a gift, a “Genuine Exam Questions from Yesteryear – The O level book” and my 3 kids, all teachers, creased up – not sure if it was pain – (and, dare I say, struggled) with some of the answers from these revered exam questions, only to be met with either suitable answers, or a chorus of “I remember that” from yours truly. Automatic responses learned many years ago enabled me to explain why the spout of a teapot reaches at least as high as the lid, or how birds conserve their heat in winter, to stating the Principle of Archimedes. Or maybe I could explain how a housewife can ensure that her milk supply keeps in good condition in hot weather?

    Whereas I appreciate that being able to learn some things almost “parrot fashion” provides opportunity to straightforwardly answer the exam question succinctly, what use is that if you cannot apply lateral thinking to everday problem-solving and analysis? I concur that whilst some things have indellibly been etched onto some of my grey matter for time immemorable, enabling me over the years to provide illumination to my (then) children and now grandchildren why the birdies are fluffy and puffed up in winter, or how to keep your milk fresh when the ‘fridge broke down or when camping – proper, (enabling me to apply lessons learned!), I’ve never really given Archimedes as much as a second thought – unless you count the time I lazed in an huge antique roll-topped bath-tub and considered water displacement and buoyancy for the briefest of nano-seconds!

    When studying generally, let alone prepping for exams, there can be no substitute for being able to apply what you’re learning to real, live, everyday work and occurrences to help understand the bigger picture. That’s why it’s so good to see examples of such everyday activity in study materials , or accident forms stating ” Mrs B sustained injury as she tripped over a handbag strap protuding from a colleague’s desk, whilst undertaking a general office risk assessment” !! Classic!

Comments are closed.