Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Examination Students Staff — The Eternal Triangle

page 4

Examination Students Staff
The Eternal Triangle

New Zealand universities have students, staff and examinations, and the three-way relationships these features impose. At the moment, the third feature is facing criticism which, reasonable in some respects, is unreasonable insofar as it seems to assume that one can alter the status of the one feature vis-a-vis the other two without altering the mutual relationship of the other two.

In the triangle of relationships, the examination acts in the interest of the students in two ways:

• It ensures that success or failure depends on performance, not on personal relationships; in other words, it protects certain students from the effect of staff-student relationships and it removes the protection which other students might enjoy. Candidate anonymity, external assessment, number and variety of examination papers and markers, all contribute to make a student's overall performance in examination decide his overall success.

• An examination provides a standard, so that Degree awards in successive years represent a fairly constant achievement.

I cannot see that examinations offer comparable direct benefit to staff: certainly they entail much unproductive labour. In fact, generally speaking, it has never been "persons in authority" who have had advantage from examinations.

In England, before public, competitive examination was introduced. Civil Service posts were filled by patronage. Examinations, for anonymous candidates, were designed, in China, with the specific purpose of choosing a country's public servants according to merit instead of according to personal assessment and "pull" of one kind or another. Certainly public, competitive examination was introduced into England with this purpose, and examination as a test of merit came to New Zealand as a matter of course.

Now it does not seem to me that "abolitionists" have deliberately chosen to go back on the principle of qualification according to merit rather than according to personal influence. Nevertheless the issue is plain for every student Your forefathers gained a certain freedom from "those in authority" by submission to examination. If you get freedom from examination, you will pay for it in increased dependence on "those in authority".

Other patterns of relationships

New Zealand universities show one pattern of student-staff-examination relationships. For many students their university is the only model of a university they know. There are other models.

In London University, and in many European universities, the only requirement of a student wishing to take one examination is evidence that he has passed the relevant previous exami nation within prescribed time limits. A London Degree taken externally may represent a student—examination relationship only. In other universities, there may in fact be real personal relationships between students and staff, but they are not formalised. On the other hand, in the residential British universities, staff-student personal relationships are formally organised, and are perhaps the most esteemed feature of undergraduate experience. New Zealand universities fall somewhere in between. Let us, for the [unclear: moment] not consider general merits and demerits, but ask a question: "Which student enjoys more personal freedom?"—Not, I think, the New Zealand student with attendance requirements, assignments— "Term".

Pass rates

Attiudes towards examination success and failure also vary; pass rates which in one country would be intolerable are accepted in another.

A common attitude among Wellington students (at least it is the stated attitude of their students' Education Committee) is that examination failure represents waste of staff and student time, and so of public money.

According to the Times Educational Supplement of 15 November 1963, of the students entering French universities that year at least 75% would not get a degree on the waste-of-time premise only 25% were not wasting time, and money. This degree of waste is by no means unthinkable in contemporary society: nevertheless, one suspects there is perhaps another point of view.

There is. If you ever have the opportunity to ask a French student about "the waste of time", you may get asked back, perhaps fiercely, "Do you think it a waste of time to be following Professor X's lectures!"

The French student is right to challenge our shopkeeper accounting, according to which a high pass-rate is a mark of efficiency. Let us suppose (Context A) a class of 50 students all of whom pass (pass-rate 100%). Let us suppose (Context B) a class of 100 students of whom 50 pass (pass-rate 50%). Let us now suppose that the 50 passing students of Context B would be the same passing students as in Context A. which context is socially preferable? Surely B, for not only does the same number pass but 50 additional students follow the course of study. Assuming the latter to be worth while, the failing students (many of whom have approached the pass mark) and hence the community profit; and Context B is the more economical.

Now this manner of accounting has underlying assumptions. First, the course is not given for the examination; that is, the benefit to the failing students must be real and appreciated as real otherwise the "waste" point of view will acquire validity). Then there must be a pass: fail proportion which remains within the limit of what is acceptable anywhere; it seems to me that 1:3 is well beyond this limit. Thirdly, competition for success must not be so harsh that its cost is unrelieved swotting and a distorted sense of values. Fourthly, the country's economy must be strong enough for employers to recognise the value in prospective employees of a period of study which did not lead to an academic qualification: and may not have apparent, immediate practical application, but which has potential effectiveness over a longer time scale.

Concepts of efficiency

Nevertheless, behind Context B there does lie a concept of efficiency which is radically different from the common New Zealand one. It goes with a radically different concept of the function of the university, and its staff.

In our, British, kind there is a fee for each course, Presumably, as with other commercial transactions, it would be unethical to 'take' a course for which one has not paid. In the other kind, the student pays a fee which, with supplements where required, entitles him to follow any course. Thus, in our kind, a member of the staff may give a brilliant series of lectures to a handful of students who have paid the fee. Such an uneconomical procedure would, in the other kind, be unthinkable—a "waste" of the lecturer's talent (and salary). For the lecturer there has before him "his own" students and perhaps ten times that number of other students, colleagues; and interested people from the city. All these additional people represent social benefit from the lecturer's work.

British style university classes are reserved for students with an examination interest in the subject. The other model university lecturers are open to people with an interest in the subject. The lecture rooms represent the universities themselves, and their concepts of their social function. The European model has, so to say, an added feature, and its internal relationships become: staff—general public— student−examination. The consequences of the fourth feature is something like the consequence of having a distinguished visitor in the house. The lecturer's cookery improves too. However, we are now concerned with the consequence of closed classroom door/open classroom door policies with respect to examination success.

Competition to enrol in British universities, other than London, is extremely severe. With exclusive admission policy and exclusive study regulations a high pass-fail ratio is to be expected. Conversely, in universities with easy admission and open-door study facilities one can expect a lower pass:fail ratio. In countries with large scale unemployment, easy admission to university and even a 1:1 pass:fail ratio are simultaneously possible only by lowering the value of the degrees, a measure not in the students' long term interest. New Zealand again falls in between. It manages to have a liberal admission policy, but shuts its classroom doors to non-examination oriented people, and it has a high pass:fail ratio. One guesses that, so far, opportunity for immediate well paid employment has kept away those without a definite bent for academic study.

In all countries there is strong criticism of the role of the universities in the country. In Britain there is much concern over the small proportion of its people to have been to a university. British universities certainly serve their students while they are there; but it seems to be assumed that even their students' interest in university teaching is terminated with graduation. In the European university patern, the teacher is not so concerned with "his" students and their personal success and failure; and a university is not an agglomeration of self-contained study groups. It is more a municipal asset, in which examinations have a smaller place than elsewhere.

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.

Real importance of the examination

Sensible criticism is always in season and, who knows, may have effect, but how important in itself is the passing and failing of examinations?

A few statements of the obvious might be helpful here too. In the first place, failure is less serious when a student may repeat the examination. Secondly, the failed student is less afflicted by a sense of his failure if he is one of a fair number. Third, the more arbitrary an examination, and the more open to criticism, the smaller the "disgrace" of failure. In the fourth place, the failed student is made to feel his "inadequacy" when the "waste of time" (and money) theme is current. A final statement of the obvious is that staff attitude is largely responsible for the students' attitude to passing and failing. Over concern at students' failing is an unnecessary unkindness: it would surely be more considerate to set the importance of the examination itself in a realistic perspective. And, of course, the worth of a person is not indicated by examination performance. Whether a person passes or fails or what grade he has is interesting, but should neither be nor seem to be very important. Not for staff, for whom it is university work that matters. Certainly not for students, who do themselves an obvious disservice by magnifying the consequence of an essentially unimportant occurrence.

Teacher or judge

After an examination, one sometimes hears staff complaint over (A) who has done better than he should and (B) who has done worse. I am not here concerned with the point that examination is a salutary corrective to staff impressions, but with the status of such impressions. Most 'abolitionists" seem to think that "Term work" would be a more reliable indication of a student's worth, presumably because there is more of it and it is produced in more realistic surroundings. This may be correct, and it may not, but it implies that one function of university staff is the judging of students. I think staff should pause before accepting this, and that students should pause before urging it on their teachers. A judge's impartiality costs effort, and is infrequently achieved by professionals. In many subjects, to mark the twelfth piece of work with the same frame of mind as the first is not possible, and a serious attempt would exact more effort than the pieces of work are themselves worth. Some secondary schools do have a number of self-important staff with an exaggerated opinion of the value of concocted assignments and their "fair" assesment. Surely a university teacher's job, at least, is to teach, not sit in judgment.

A secondary but practical aspect of the assessment responsibility is precisely the risk of squandering teaching time. When "test" are set mainly for the sake of list of marks for each student the risk is high. (A "test" [unclear: can] of course, be a planned part of a teaching programme and can itself teach: the importance a lecturer gives to the teaching element may often be gauged by the time he spends "going over" the work with his students.)

Some staff, as well as students, are sceptical about the judgement there already is. Hearing recently of the failure of a student in a subject II had assumed passed, I asked what had happened. "No," I was corrected. "I would have passed, of course, but I wasn't given "Terms". They say Z at the first lecture of the year always picks on two or three students as the ones who intend to cause mischief−and these student can thereafter never do a right thing." This allegation may and may not be founded, but it should not be possible. [unclear: "Terms"] already prejudice staff-student relations in my opinion., further assessment responsibility would be an intolerable imposition.

Staff who prize the British tradition of tutor and small group of students, with personal contact opening the students' minds, give little importance to examinations. Staff who esteem the European tradition and trust in the values of scholarship to open the students' minds give little importance to examinations. Many of both groups wish to maintain the role of the examination because it is not important and because any replacement, though equally unimportant, would divert staff effort from its primary function to a trivial and incidental one.

New Zealand students conscious of student interests both now and after graduation realise that examination is to their advantage. Statistics, elements of chance and pusillanimous grievances of all kinds have to be seen in relation to the first function of examinations— which is to judge, not the student or his merit, but a particular performance; to judge it anonymously, without bias, partiality or personal preconceptions of any sort. We may, and should, try to ensure that the examination fulfils its purpose as well as its function, that the performance indeed indicates the general quality and ability of the candidates; and criticism of the gap here is constructive.

I have hoped to show that university examinations are one element in a set of relation ships, that they protect the student, that they ought not to be a major consideraion in any universiy tradition, that substituting staff judgment would be uniwise. New Zealand universities are not irrevocably fixed in particular traditions: there is real usefulness to knowledge of the variety of contemporary types of university.

H. V. George is the head of the English Language Institute.