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).