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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 3. 1969.

Criticisms of examinations

Criticisms of examinations

It is easy, and proper, to criticise examinations. Peacock's 100-year-old indictment ("Gryll Grange") is lively, still up-to-date; and, exceptionally on this subject, will written. One telling criticism is that in actual examinations the tested knowledge is often irrelevant to the professional work which the candidate may, by virture of his success, be "qualified" to perform. Another is that otherwise competent people fail examinations; and that otherwise incompetent people pass them. I would add the criticism that the usual 50% pass mark has a depressing effect on the teaching of many subjects.

One can summon less sympathy with the idea that luck should not figure in an examination, or that examination is somehow unfair because it is an ordeal to nervous candidates. Luck is a feature of life; life is not exempt from ordeals; it is a fact that some "rise to the occasion" while others do not: carping here is grumbling about life itself.

One criticism of New Zealand examinations is worth study: it is that they are predominantly written. There is a simple historical reason for this: until the 1940s, final degree papers being assessed in London were necessarily written. British provincial universities and many universities in Africa and India, for the very same reason, now have traditions of assessment of students' written performance; and of course London University itself has this tradition. Other British universities, like many European universities, rely mainly on oral examination. In some ways, oral examination is more searching. A stranger on the spot may discover weaknesses which an assessor might be able to guess from written answer but not be certain of, and not he able to check. On the other hand, the examiner, by helpful [unclear: intervention] can save a candidate who was embarking on one of the long irrelevancies which squander so many marks in written examinations.

For many occupations, a qualification gained by writing may represent what is required. For many occupations, a qualification gained by speaking is more relevant. The form of the examination sets the form of the preparation for the examination, and it is possible that a professional class of relatively inarticulate people is the price we pay for our written examination tradition.