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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 1. March 13, 1958

Examinations:— — A Necessary Evil?


A Necessary Evil?

Drawing of fortune telling

From time to time students grumble about examinations, and these grumbles are inclined, not unnaturally, to increase during the months of October and November. But now these tense times are over —for the time being—and it might be profitable in the comparative calm to examine more closely the advantages and disadvantages of the examination system at the University level.

The alleged merits of the examination system might be set out as follows:—
(1)It provides a formal, standardised test, without favouritism.
(2)It is a test of a student's character, of his ability to rise to the occasion and give him the sort of experience to enable him to overcome the difficulties he inevitably meets after leaving University.
(3)If there were no examinations there would be little incentive, in many cases, for the student to retain his knowledge after his essay had been written and discussed.

The Greater Majority

Those who are sceptical about the value of examinations argue that under the present system of marking (in the Arts Faculty anyway) there is no agreed and uniform standard and that favouritism is possible, although, at the higher stages there are checks against injustice or great variety in marking.

To those who value examinations as a test of character, I would suggest that the function of examinations should be to test knowledge and intellectual power and that the student who suffers from nerves, who lacks the temperament to cope with the somewhat artificial conditions of an examination, produces results which are not an indication of his academic worth.

I think there is some point in the third argument, but against it must be set the fact that examinations tend to encourage bad methods of work. Surely the present conditions encourages very little work for most of the year, then hard cramming for a couple of months. But it is Knowledge gained in such a way that is all too easily and quickly forgotten. The majority of education theorists seem agreed that it is best to learn regularly and gradually.

Of course, there are some subjects where it would be quite impossible to dispense with examinations. A knowledge of languages and, I suppose, the natural sciences, would have to be tested in some such way, but in subjects like history, philosophy, political science, psychology, education, etc., if the student were to do eight or nine essays during the year, this together with the cut and thrust of the weekly seminar, should leave the lecturer or tutor in little doubt about the worth of the student. This would necessitate somewhat smaller classes than sometimes exist at present, together with reasonable continuity in tutors, but if the academic year were made about a month longer, if a good level of work were insisted upon, I see no reason why there should be any lowering of academic standards but rather a general gain from steady consistent work, without either stagnation or spectacular bursts.


There are those, no doubt, who would say that the prestige of our New Zealand Universities would drop if there were to be any large scale replacement of the examination system and it certainly would require courage for New Zealand to lead the world in this respect, so I suppose there is little likelihood of drastic changes.

Nevertheless I feel that some of the evils of examinations could be mitigated by some such measures as:
(1)Accrediting certain papers (as has been done by one department here).
(2)Holding three-hour examinations for one or more papers during the session itself; and perhaps by
(3)Giving students in the higher stages, at any rate, some choice in the number of questions to be answered.

I do not think that any practical difficulties about checks against injustice need arise because of substitution of essay and seminar work for the final examinations. In the case of Stage 3 and Honours students—when it is necessary (or customary) for work to be checked by another New Zealand University—the essays done during the year and the tutor's comments would be sent on to be assessed in the usual manner.

Russell Price.

Printed by the Disabled Serviceman's League at their registered office, 21 Lloyd Street, for the Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association, Wellington.