The Unknown Of Exams

(and I mean beyond the fact that nobody actually knows what the frak the 1957 Rapacki Plan was)

This isn’t really a concern for you I-do-maths-and-science-and-the-rest-of-my-life-will-consist-largely-of-rote-learning-facts-regardless-of-what-I-do-with-them people, whose A-levels will probably include appropriate amounts of mind-crushing fact-leaning, but for us essay-writing people, the subjectivity of written essays is occasionally terrifying: what if the As I get from my teacher are more because of their optimistic marking, and the same essay would be awarded a C by an examiner?

I’ve experienced this in the past, with a fun, but increasingly distant, History teacher awarding an ‘excellent’ essay of mine, with no criticisms on it, a 28/40 (and giving a friend of mine an unrelatedly unhelpful ‘do better by improving’ comment). When our class got a new teacher, our marks mysteriously increased to a minimum of 36/40 within about seven seconds of walking into the new classroom.

And this isn’t a go at individual teachers; mark schemes the world over consist of constructively specific grade boundaries: the difference between an A*- and an A-grade essay is that the former displays ‘perceptive’ analysis, while the latter is merely ‘excellent’; it seems that the only difference between grades is the sophistication, rather than the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning, of adjectives we use to describe them.

This also makes it bloody difficult to mark my own work: I’ll give myself a 26/30 in English, only to be bitch-slapped with an 18 from a teacher for the same piece, and my ensuing harsh self-marking of a 17-deserving essay will crush my morale, only for that same teacher to confuse me by giving it a 28. Sigh.

I think the quality of my school is also harmful here: a frequent criticism of my old essays was that I was doing the A* stuff, but not the C stuff, which reflects the fact that my teachers probably assume I know the basic plot of King Lear, and so focus only on the analytical points. This can be dangerous, as any factual errors – like my erroneous idea that it was Kent, not Edgar, that married Cordelia in Naham Tate’s rewrite of the play – are not picked up on until four seconds before the exam, and any time you learn something about a play as you’re writing about it is probably indicative of an impending crap essay.

Furthermore, the external exams will be marked by external examiners, who won’t assume I know what I’m talking about just because I got 80% on my last end-of-topic test; I’d argue they’re more likely to pick up on holes in knowledge or inconsistencies in arguments than teachers who are accustomed to 90% of their students constructing perfectly evidenced and explained arguments every time.

Annoyingly, there aren’t solutions to this, beyond ensuring that every marker of a humanities paper is an expert in that field, a painfully difficult prospect given the disparity in numbers of people who know anything about Shakespeare, and pretentious teenagers who think that disagreeing with a critic shows them to be masters of literature, rather than robots that can only hit mark schemes with free-will depriving regularity.

And another solution, to give specific content guidance in mark schemes so that any moron with a GCSE in General Studies can mark an A-level essay, is problematic in that it limits creativity, suggesting there are objectively right and wrong ways to respond to a text, which kinda opposes the very idea of literature as both a means of expressing one’s ideas, and a means of responding to the ideas of others.

I’m going to fear these exams, not because I won’t revise, or because I can’t remember the moralising of Edgar in his guise as Poor Tom, but because essays, as an art form, always have the potential to be comprehensively and fundamentally flawed, far easier than a maths question could be, a risk I guess fits the boom-or-bust nature of actually writing for a living.

So here’s to fear, of the stupidly important and potentially-life defining exams I’m going to take before I’m even old enough to buy booze. Cheers!

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