So over the next two weeks, I will sit seven three hour exams constituting 88% of my degree. Compared to most studying PPE here, that’s not too stressful. Those that opted at the end of first year for economics have nine exams coming up to decide their grade entirely. My fellow philosophers similarly have all hanging on the next fortnight, over eight exams. It’s only because I took the rare option of writing a thesis that I will enter Exam Schools with something in the bag.
Not that this is distinctive to PPE. All students of the arts and humanities here can tell a similar story: their assessment is insanely skewed towards the very end, with little if anything coming before right now. But this is, it seems, distinctive to Oxford. I didn’t realise it until after Prelims in first year, when a member of the press asked me as I came out what I thought about the ‘Oxford system’. Only then did I learn how rare it was nowadays to have no coursework, and not to be assessed module by module.
I can’t decide how much there is to be said for conducting things this way, but there are some obvious virtues. I’ve been able to spend the last two years reflecting on what I’ve learnt, adding to my knowledge through extra reading as and when, during the holidays, I’ve discovered new avenues, and I haven’t had the constant mindset of being tested hanging over me. In other words, the learning has been purer. I don’t think it would have felt so valuable in itself if I hadn’t left exam technique and revision until the final few months.
But the flip-side is obviously the insane pressure levels, once Finals finally arrive. Fortunately for me, I don’t feel the heat. No doubt my unconditional offer for graduate study has a lot to do with that, but I know from past experience that I can manage exam seasons better than most. I often feel like I even revel in and excel under the importance of the time period.
And yet the same obviously doesn’t apply to everyone, and it makes one return to that common concern: is this really the best way to assess the quality of a student? Does my ability to think on my feet in timed conditions really reflect accurately upon the skills I’ve acquired through tutorials these past three years? Is it not worth at least contemplating alternative assessment techniques?
There’s undeniably a place for the assessment of quick-thinking, how well one can bring one’s tools to an unseen problem and pick out the appropriate acquired knowledge. But this great a place? In most cases, 100%? And if that’s the rationale for examinations, then why give me six months – yes, six – to prepare?
I’m ready, and I won’t resent going through the process one final time. But I also won’t regret the fact that exams won’t follow me through to graduate study. From now on, I’ll be judged solely on the basis of work that I’ve fine-tuned, and that will surely be a better reflection of my academic quality.