The Value of Examination and Competition in Education

Christen Palange Published 15 Jun 2016

Does our education system foster an unhealthy competition and angst?

As our educational system becomes more results-driven, we, as students, are feeling more pressure and anxiety. In my college stats class sophomore year, the professor would write on the white board how many students received As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs for every quiz and exam prior to handing back our grades. This may not seem like a big deal, but the class was small. With no more than 15 students, it was easy to figure out who got the As and who… didn’t.

The professor probably did this because it was a statistics class, so it actually made sense to know the dispersion of grades. Personally, it helped me when I got a bad grade on a quiz. Through this system, I learned that mine was one of the highest grades in the class. If I had just gotten that grade without context I would have been distraught, but to know that my grade was actually relatively good, I felt better. The other students also took comfort knowing that their poor grades were in fact average.

However, on the quizzes where there were more As than anything else, it probably didn’t help the students who got lower grades to know where theirs fell.

Though honestly, I can’t say that competition in education is all bad. Throughout college and high school I surrounded myself with people who would challenge me to do better and work harder. But this competition was not ruthless. It was a competition to push each other to do better. My opinion on this could just be attributed to this particular era; a time of increasingly standardized education while the nation is falling behind

Recently, the BBC reported survey results of UK student attitudes toward testing. When asked if they did poorly on a test at school, who would they be most worried about knowing, 41% of students answered, unsurprisingly, their parents. More surprisingly, 17% said they would be most worried about their friends and peers knowing the result. In addition, when asked to choose the emotions they feel most strongly when they take exams, students chose nervous (59%), worried (39%), and stressed (27%), above confident (21%), excited (13%), and happy (11%). That’s right – 11% are actually happy when they take exams….

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This system is inefficient, not because of the fact that we have grades or exams, but because students feel so much pressure to succeed on one exam, it causes serious anxiety, ruins their day, and ruins their interpretation of school. For students with multiple exams per week, this is not something to take lightly. 

A teacher in the UK assigned a homework assignment leading up to the standardized tests of her 10 and 11 year old students including assignments like, “Go for a swim or a walk,” “Read a book,” and “Smile.” She was praised for this assignment during a particularly stressful time for these 10 year olds. She ended the assignment by saying to remember it was her job to worry, not the students and that she was proud of each of them. 

The pressure of school is one that will most likely be emulated in the workforce. It’s common knowledge that life only gets harder when you’re out in the real world. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show exams do prepare students for life. 

People question if students are defeated or coddled, and I agree, students should be held to high standards to prepare them for life. However, students who are 10 or 11 years old should not be feeling excessive pressure put on any one exam or assignment. 

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