Why Are Exams Tests Of Memory And Not Knowledge?


Having done my GCSE’s, A-Levels, 3 Year Undergraduate Degree, one Post Graduate Certificate in Education, and currently undertaking the Bar Professional Training course, one could say that I have had more than my fair share of exams.

I recall hearing on the BBC Programme QI, that the first exam was ‘created’ by a chemist as a method of understanding what his students had learnt.

Thereby lies the reason that exams were created, what students had ‘learnt’, not as so is often confused as today, as ‘memorised’.

Perhaps the reason why I am bitter on this subject is because of the profession which I have been training in over the past two years, that of law. You only have to visit a court room to see that those on either side of the judicial bench have academic text books, notes, and in some cases even computers to look up information which they are unsure of.

It seems strange that whilst I understand the idea behind a law exam is to work out what is learnt, those same books which are allowed to be used in court rooms, academic texts, materials which are relied upon by both Judge and advocate to confirm what the law is, are not permitted in two of the most significant papers of the Bar Course (Criminal & Civil Litigation).

In my time of a student I have done a handful of open book tests, and this year is no exception as some of the modules allow the taking of notes in. For those who have yet to experience an open book test, the feeling is probably one of disbelief.

“How can you fail an open book test, after all you have all the information in front of you?”

For those who have taken open book exams will know that this is not the case, as having books and notes with you can be of no use to you what so ever if you have not learnt the subject you are being examined on. There is one simple reason for this. If you have no idea what the topic is, you simply spend the majority of the time flipping through pages of your notes and reading chapters out of the books without getting anything in your answer paper.

The point which I am trying to make is a simple one. Too many people are confusing the word ‘learnt’ and ‘memorised’. The first is a skill, that can be applied to anything, for example teaching a man how to fish – he will never go hungry again. The second one of memory is useful, but unless you have the skill it is pointless. In other words knowing where fish are is great, but if you don’t have the skills to get them out of the water and on to your plate what use is the knowledge?

I am not suggesting that all exams for all students should be open book, far from it, after all why would I wish something on students which I myself had to work through (and probably made me better for it – although I’ve never needed at least 90% of the stuff I learnt for GCSE maths!). I am suggesting that those setting the paper look at the materials which professionals in that chosen field have and use, and contemplate whether using those materials in the examination, would make the qualification more valuable in the real world.

Knowledge is totally different to memory - so why must the two be confused!?

Knowledge is totally different to memory – so why must the two be confused!?