Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | January 21, 2012

Exams and league tables

Nick Gibb MP, State Minister for Schools, published an article in the The Telegraph, outlining a reform of school league tables.

an article is followed by an interesting comment from JD:

If it is possible to “teach to a test” at the expense of a subject, then the fault is with the test.

They must simply be testing facts rather than any understanding.

I’ve discussed this with my engineers who inform me they had very  different finals for their Masters than I did.

The norm is multi choice and exams with 30 questions expecting fact recital.

From 30 years ago the emphasis was on very short questions expecting an essay for an answer. Classically this question would be to discuss methods to solve a problem that as yet hasn’t been solved (in this case using the engineering skills you’ve learnt).

I remember 30 years ago being asked one question with a 1 1/2 hour essay.

“Your director of engineering proposes a new product. A Digital Network Telephone with IP Packet based data. Discuss.”

This was years before TBL proposed the WWW – we were being asked to invent Skype in 1.5 hours.   This type of question isn’t possible to teach to – especially as the list of problems to be solved is endless.

In the same vein, I had to appraise a Navigation specialist whilst working offshore. He happened to be Malay (this was in Asia). He had a Masters Science degree. We asked him to solve a simple problem with the tools available offshore.

“The ships gyro has failed. How would you use the vessels onboard GPS systems and additional GPS to functionally replace the Gyro providing heading information”.

He couldn’t provide any answer (after two weeks). His excuse was there was no reference to this in any book. He said then the question wasn’t fair – how can you answer a question where you can’t find the answer in a book?

This is where education has gone wrong.



  1. Interesting.

    My experience at A-Level and university was that past papers from 5-10
    years prior were harder, even allowing for changes in the content of
    the syllabus. Papers from the mid-90s were the most difficult to which
    we had access.

    By the way, if the “additional GPS” is a shore station that broadcasts
    its location, the answer appears to be simple, you use it as a
    lighthouse – you use your onboard GPS to compute bearings at
    intervals, which will enable you to calculate your heading. Perhaps I
    have misunderstood the real question, because the answer seems

  2. Actually, I think the on-board GPS would be sufficient – periodic
    fixes would give the course over time, and a compass would give the
    ship’s instantaneous orientation. Again, I do not see what would be
    difficult about navigation in the absence of gyroscopes.

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