Teaching to Pass the Exam

When I was at school, I was taught to pass exams.

This is viewed very critically in the press – just take a look at these Google returns. But this is not the education I recognise in myself. From day 1 in my education, I was taught how to answer questions, how to tease a question apart into its component pieces (back in my day it was Knowledge & Understanding and Skills & Problem Solving, and every question featured both components).

I was taught how to game marking schemes, how to exploit a question’s structure to give me the most to talk about, how to use my skills when my knowledge failed me.

In news reports, we often hear that ‘teaching to pass exams’ means that university lecturers are having to re-teach the basics.

I never learned grammar at school – that might be obvious. I did poorly in the classes that drilled me on facts (I still only remember the first line of the German definitive articles, der, die, das, der, despite staring at the poster for two years straight). Even now, I ‘know’ the answer to very little. I don’t remember how many dairy cows are in the UK, or what her average milk yield is. That knowledge I outsource to Google. If you wanted a critical evaluation of dairy trends, I have the skills to deliver that, very quickly.

You might say my education was ‘curriculum led’ versus ‘item-teaching’, where I learned a subject thoroughly instead of being taught what was coming up in the test. I don’t think this is entirely true to be honest. My Highers (the big Scottish high school exam) were done way back in 2003. To prepare for my History exam, I tried my hand at answering the questions on the time frames I hadn’t been taught. I passed them. Not well, but I did pass. There was enough Skill and Problem Solving demonstrated to pass the answers.

I rely on those old exam techniques a lot as an academic. I don’t want to beat my breast and say that students aren’t being taught right any more – but I will say there the skills animal behaviour and welfare science uses to interrogate a question are not so different from the skills an English student will use to critique a piece of work, or a History student to draw up some conclusions. Animal behaviour and welfare is a science that demands a lot of evaluative thought alongside its experimental design.

And that’s not easy to teach


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