The wrong road to success in exams

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 July, 1996, 12:00am

I was once told that driving lessons do not teach you to drive. They teach you to pass the driving test so you get your licence. After that you can drive on the roads on your own - then you learn to drive properly.

I received this lecture during my first driving lesson. Enlightened and properly motivated, I attended the subsequent lessons with the single purpose of preparing for the test and I passed it at the first attempt, proudly joining the statistics that proved the success of the driving school.

How I learned to drive after securing my licence was not the school's concern.

Obviously you will pass the test if you are a good driver. There are ways of training, however, that can help you pass without first becoming one.

The same is true for any kind of test. There are mechanical drills, for example, that can help you excel in IQ tests without really sharpening your wits.

Public examinations are supposed to be held for the purpose of measuring how much and how well students have learned.

But as in any other important test, there are people who specialise in devising shortcuts that can help students score high marks in exams without having to learn properly. This is why students go to 'tutorial schools'.

These schools probably have a manifesto similar to that of my driving school. 'Here we do not teach you writing or mathematics, or physics. We teach you to pass the examination.' With their goals defined, they 'teach' students in ways very different from conventional schools, which generally feel obliged to preach against education that is 'examination-oriented'.

Tutorial schools are not encumbered with the educational burden of conventional schools.

They do not have to put up a pretence of providing a balanced education. What students get is examination-oriented training with a vengeance.

Everything is geared to achieving high marks in exams. Instead of working with vague aims such as 'enhancing writing skills', students are strongly motivated by no-nonsense objectives like 'obtaining a grade C in the use of English examination'.

Past papers are analysed to predict what questions will be set in the next examination. 'Marking schemes' are studied to find out how to maximise scores with a limited amount of information. Skills are taught for cramming. 'Model answers' are provided for students to remember off by heart.

These tactics can hardly be called 'education' in any decent sense of the word. It is sad that a large number of students would rather spend their time and effort on such exercises than on learning properly at school.

However, it is unfair to blame students for paying too much attention to examinations. Students who fail their exams are mercilessly punished by our society, regardless of what other skills they have acquired from their school education.

It is the education system itself that attaches too much importance to public examinations.

The Examinations Authority appears to be fully aware of the 'washback effect' of public examinations on classroom teaching. Conscious efforts are made to design tests in such a way as to reward proper learning, to encourage a well-rounded education, and to discourage question-spotting and rote learning.

The Examinations Authority may believe it is fighting a war against the tutorial school industry. If so, it is losing, as is shown by the growing prosperity of the industry. Moreover, this prosperity is itself an inevitable 'washback effect' of the very examinations the authority administers.