How Exams test students’ limits


By Frank M.

The end of Christmas vacation was approaching. It was two days to go until school started again and I was sitting with a group of friends.  Suddenly a familiar feeling hit me, a sort of discomfort deep down in the pit of my stomach. This feeling came with the realization that exams were coming soon and two solid weeks of similar discomfort were in my near future. My friend must have read my mind because the next thing she said was “Man, exams are gonna suck.” Well, that put a damper on the mood; actually it just puts a damper on the whole last couple days of Christmas vacation. You can’t enjoy the end of your vacation because you’re always thinking to yourself “you know, if I actually cared about my education, I would start studying early and ensure myself a good grade.” But of course you don’t because you’re on vacation. So what do you end up with? A so-so exam score and a horrible, guilt ridden, worry filled end to your vacation.

Over the next hour or so we sat and talked about exams. Several topics were raised such as: Why do exams take place at such an inconvenient time? Why don’t we get exemptions? Why do we even TAKE exams? Is the stress and worry even worth whatever the benefits are? What are the benefits? So I thought to myself these questions needed to be answered, and I set out on a quest. I asked even more question of even more people and did some of my own research so I could share my answers with all of you.

I started with a little bit of research to see what the science community thinks of exams. The conclusion I came to is that you can find something to support anything on the internet, so I gathered a bit of Pro and anti exam support.

The biggest points being made against exams are that they are too standardized. A lot is being said about how student’s knowledge needs to be tested in more real world applicable situations. says “Instead of tests students should have to use what they learn in real life situations. And why shouldn’t people be able to use their notes? In real life situations you want to use every tool available to help get the job done the best way possible. No-one is going to learn by cramming for an exam, and in real-life, you’ll always have your notes or books to refer to.”

I have to say, I agree with what they are saying. In real life, notes aren’t considered cheating, you’re often encouraged to check and confirm your actions if you’re unsure, it’s usually the best way to ensure things are done correctly and safely. I know having notes would definitely decrease my stress, which is another aspect of exams that is heavily criticized. “Findings published by have shown 53% of children and young people say pressure from parents to do well in exams causes them anxiety, and 64% say they have never had any support in dealing with exams. Alarmingly 14% say they drink alcohol and 8% turn to self harm to cope with feelings of anxiety.” Reports This is another issue that strikes a chord with me. From what I’ve seen there doesn’t seem to be an increase in support for students during exam week and the days leading up to it. I think a small investment here would make a big difference.

Now, even though I agree with some of the criticisms made, that doesn’t mean I am anti-exam, it just means the system isn’t above improvement. In fact I’m pro-exam, mostly because of one cold, hard, irrefutable fact; there are exams in University. You can’t argue that. And if you haven’t been conditioned to take exams, the work load and sheer scale of University exams are going to hit you like a freight train. Now, some might say “well, I hate exams, so why not just eliminate them from university too?” They can’t, because universities hand out things called degrees. Degrees allow people to work in specialized, often very important and very crucial work positions that must be performed safely. Degrees can’t just be handed to any idiot who walks in off the street and manages to pass a class, they need to be sure this person knows what they’re doing before they perform surgery on somebody or try to fix the brakes on some bodies car. says “A student’s success in an examination helps employers and others to assess his mental or general ability.”

That’s one point of view on exams, my preferred way of looking at it. Another notable opinion is that schools need to be sure they’re teacher’s time isn’t going to waste. Everyone knows somebody who coasts through class not paying attention, so exams are needed to give them a wakeup call. Without a work ethic, they aren’t going anywhere. Now, exams can’t be tailored to each student, that would be impossible with the number of students in Canada, but examinations still need to be done, so one method that fits everyone relatively well has to be used; for now that method is the exam “Children do need to be assessed, and testing allows teachers or administrators to evaluate children in a relatively objective, standardized, efficient way.” Says

But, only so much can be gleaned from consulting research. It is also important to talk to the people affected by the exams directly. I’ve talked to students, teachers and other school officials and gotten their opinion on exams. Brendan Holley, a student at Sir John A McDonald High School in Halifax told me what he thought the perks were of going to a school that gives exam exemptions. Sir John A students who have missed no more than six days of school and have an 85% grade average are given the ability to exempt one of their elective course exams.  “I think having exemptions is a positive aspect of exams and only adds to their benefits. Exemptions are a privilege that must be earned. They require hard work and dedication. Doing all that hard work shows that you really put an effort into your school work. Exemptions are a reason for students to finish all their assignments and to show up for school. All in all they encourage admirable behavior.” Brendan said.

I agree, if exemptions are given based on your academic performance, and only for one class, it would be a helpful addition. It would give already academically successful students a day more to study and a real chance to show their true potential. I think every school should make exemptions like this an option.

But Fredericton High doesn’t have exemptions, yet our sister school Leo Hayes does. I thought I’d find out why. I was able to talk to FHS vice Principle Mr. Langille. On the topic of exemptions he had this to say.

“Exemptions were brought to Leo Hayes to improve attendance, and even then only elective courses can be exempted. Looking at the stats afterwards, attendance at Leo Hayes has only gone up by 0.5%. It didn’t work there so they won’t be coming here, not without the approval of the PSSC (Parent School Support Committee) at any rate.”

I suppose that’s fair enough. On the importance of exams in general though, he had this to say.

“If exams were cut out of high school and introduced only in the first year of university, do you think you would do well? Do you think you would have the work ethic to study for them? Probably not. Now, you’re paying to go to university and take their classes and their exams. They’re pretty expensive tests to fail.”

I have to say, he makes a lot of sense. If I’m going to be paying upwards of 7000 dollars a year to go to university, I want to be prepared for the exams I will be taking.

Before concluding my interviews I thought I’d talk to a teacher and get their opinion on exams. English and writing teacher Mr. Hull was available for comment on the matter.

“I think exams are a good experience for students because they provide an opportunity to reflect on a body of work and to demonstrate that at least some long term learning has occurred. Not all exams will do that, but those that do can prepare students for not only post secondary learning but for those life experiences that cannot be contained in one brief moment.” He said

That pretty much sums up the current situation, I couldn’t have said it better myself. And now that its clear exams are for the best and will most likely be staying, you should learn how to study for them. I’ve always done well on exams so I thought I would share with you my method for studying.

I try to take good notes all year. Then, sometime after Christmas I purchase a small note book, one that’s about 200 pages long but that can also fit in my pocket. Once I’m ready to study I take out said note book and, using sticky tabs, divide it into sections for all my classes. Then I re-copy all my notes into it. The re-writing of the notes helps commit them to my memory and, since the note book is so small I can take it everywhere and study anywhere. I’ve been using this method for four years and I always feel confident going into exams.

I hope this article answered a few questions and gave you a bit more confidence going into your future exams, because that is really at the core of most problems regarding exams. If you have confidence, you’re doing something right.







Persons Quoted and Contact Information

Brendan Holley, Halifax N.S. –


Mr. Langille, FHS, Fredericton N.B. –


Mr. Hull, FHS, Fredericton N.B. –


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