Friday, July 28, 2006

Why Revision is Cheating

This is one of those things I don't think I was allowed to say back when I was teaching...

Most of education seems to be assessed by exams. Great, I think, as someone who is quite good at them. Exams are designed to test your on-the-spot recall of and ability at answering questions on a subject. It's not all that matters in real-life use of a subject - what you do when you have time to think about it and can go away and look stuff up also matters - but it's an important part.

What you virtually never get in real life though is having to recall all the material you have studied, and getting six months notice that it's going to be at such and such a time, in such and such a place. My pupils didn't give me six months' notice that they were going to ask me about gravity or how batteries work or whatever. They just did it.

So if exams are really texting your ability to think on the spot, then revising for them is kind of cheating. It's a legal kind of cheating, but it's cheating nonetheless because you don't get much notice in real life.

If exams aren't testing your ability to think on the spot, then why not make them open book?

And yes, I know that coursework, especially at GCSE, is an even more flawed system.

Oh yes, another thing. If exams are testing your ability to think on the spot and whatever, they why give some people extra time for dyslexia (literally bad reading)? They don't get it in real life - they have to compete on an even playing field with everyone else. Or if people with dyslexia get extra time, why not give people who can read really well (eulexia) less time? I honestly can't see what the exam system is meant to be doing.

But hey, I was always pretty good at exams, and I've got a load more to do. And yes, I'll probably revise for them. But I'll still think it's cheating.


Anonymous said...

Depends what you mean by revision. Surely it's not unreasonable to go over material beyond the inital input, in order to really commit it to memory? Not everyone can remember things they've only been told once. Cramming is something altogether different.

John said...


There's a difference between good learning technique (going over things just after doing them - the point of homeworks - then revisiting them a few weeks later to make sure they're firmly in the mind) and cramming in the few days before an exam, which is more what was in my mind when I wrote the thingy.

Anonymous said...

And I'd dispute the use of the word 'cheating'. And exam tests your recall on a particular occasion. It has inbuilt limitations as it can't test long term knowledge retention. So cramming isn't really cheating. It's not very useful if all the stuff falls out of your brain the day after. But it's not cheating.

So if you rename the post 'Why cramming is unhelpful to long term knowledge retention' I'll be more inclined to agree. :-P

John said...

The question is, I guess, why the exam tests knowledge retention. What purpose does it serve?

Short-term knowledge retention is of little use; long term is far more useful in real life. Hence the cheating thing - if the exams are to test useful retention, then cramming distorts the results. Legally, but it distorts them nonetheless.

Personally, I liked my uni exams. Short-term retention was virtually useless; deep understanding and an ability to dig out an answer under pressure was what was needed.

Anonymous said...

You imply that short term-memory is of little use - I think you are wrong here, John. My own examination results were exceptional, but what is more important (or, at least, as important) is inter-personal relationships; the majority of which last for no more than a half-hour. To be able to remember someone's name after they have first told you, and then to use it later, well, this has a major impact on people. There is, of course, a larger discussion here (what is more important to you is ... to me ... etc), but short-term or long-term memory (artificial division?) - both have their uses, and are *necessary*!

Take care, John, and good luck.

You know who I am.


John said...

Once again being caught out on a generalisation when I meant it more specifically. Oops - really ought to think through stuff before writing it.

You are of course right - short term memory is of great use in many interpersonal situations (and hi again - would be very good to see a bit more of each other). And the interpersonal is of course far more important than the academic, which was something I missed for far too many years.

Having a good short-term memory is a very useful skill. But back when I was more bothered about academic stuff (specifically in physics), my medium term and long term memories were far more useful than my short-term memory. Considering it a bit more, I can imagine it is much more useful in some subjects (e.g. English) than others.

So yes, you're right and I'm wrong. What I should have said was something along the lines of "if examinations are testing recall of the material, in general it is long term recall of the material which would be more useful than short term". Or something like that.

John said...

Having actually sat exams since writing this, yes I do revise.

But only because that makes it a fair comparison between the people sitting the exams.