Advice From an Examiner

[What follows is a very brief summary of remarks made by Professor W.V. Whitehead at the ECIS Fall Conference in Vienna, Austria, November 1990. Dr. Whitehead., a graduate of Harvard University, taught English Literature at Warwick University, England, and was for many years an examiner for the I.B., for A-Levels, and for university exams.

Prof. Whitehead began with a personal anecdote. Born and raised in a small town in the Southern United States, he did very well in high school and was admitted to Harvard on a scholarship. In the first term he enrolled in a course on Shakespeare. About two-thirds through the course, his classmates stopped reading the plays and went to the library, where they spent hours reading secondary sources about Shakespeare and his plays. Whitehead didn’t want to do this. He decided he didn’t care that much about his marks. He had become very interested in Shakespeare; he really enjoyed the plays. So instead of reading a lot of essays by other people saying what they thought of Shakespeare, he decided to keep on reading the plays. While his classmates were in the library, he was in his room reading, and re-reading, and reading again. By the end of the term he knew those plays very well, and on the final exam he earned the highest marks in the class.

The rest of his comments were based on his experience as an examiner.

Preamble: The purpose of an exam is to (1) find out what the students have done, and (2) encourage them to read the books.

The Golden Rule: ANSWER THE QUESTION! ! ! 

To answer the question, you must first read the books, and think about them, and read them again, etc., etc., etc., etc.

Typical Ways in Which Students Fail to Answer the Question

1. The Pre-Recorded Message

The student plans in advance what he or she is going to say, and then, despite being asked something else, happily writes out this carefully planned answer to a question that is not being asked.

2. The “Party Line” [This begins with bad teaching.]

The teacher tells the students The Meaning of Hamlet. The students dutifully write it down, memorize it, and write it down again in their exams. The examiner finds fifteen identical interpretations of Hamlet by fifteen students who haven’t thought about the play for fifteen seconds, and who may not have even read it. 

[Variation: Students ask The Google to explain Hamlet, with similar results: multiple matching interpretations of Hamlet taken from half-baked, badly-written internet sources like SparkNotes (see “Don’t Use Study Guides!“).]

3. The Stage Army [This also begins with bad teaching.]

The teacher gives students The Key Quotations, which the students dutifully memorize, and proceed to include in their exam answers At Any Cost (like a stage army whose costumes and props are too expensive and impressive not to use, so they’re brought on stage at the slightest pretext). The examiner finds fifteen essays, every one of which employs the same five quotations, no matter how irrelevant these quotations are to the question being asked. 

The Best Thing to Do 

  • Read the books, think about them, re-read them, discuss them, read them again, etc., as much as you possibly can. For subjects that require you to master information, test yourself repeatedly. [The goal is to move your knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory, where things like the names of your family members are stored—things you can recall immediately, and never forget. Think about how those items got into your long-term memory: repetition, repetition, repetition. Not The Google or YouTube.]
  • Read the question very carefully, and speak directly to the question in your answer.