The ABCs of success, in general, can be extended up to ‘E’ in this manner: A for ‘aptitude’, which implies that the venture should match your liking for best results; B for ‘boldness’ (this could mean answering questions as a student, participating in board meetings or making decisions); C for ‘creativity’, which is the best asset for success; D for ‘determination’, which indicates progress towards the goal undeterred by failure; and E for ‘exams’, which are an indelible part of life from childhood.
Exams can be oral or written, objective or subjective, online or offline, theoretical or practical, individual or group, academic or competitive, direct or indirect and so on. Schools and colleges offer excellent opportunities to face exams and learn the techniques of mastering them. While anxiety about exams is normal, fear of exams is a problem.
Exams are an integral part of learning. Even in summer schools or faculty improvement programmes, evaluation tests are held at the end to assess what the participants have learnt. Thus, the purpose of exams is not to hinder but to encourage proper learning. Both examiners and examinees have responsibilities in making exams serve their purpose.
For the examiner
When I handled entrance exams and admission at my university, in my effort to update the question bank for the entrance test for a particular programme, I invited contribution from a senior faculty member of an institution. I received a set of 40 objective-type questions, with the options all being: (A) True, (B) False, (C) Both the above, and (D) None of the above. Moreover, for all the questions, the correct answer was either A or B. This showed that every teacher need not be a good examiner.
When teachers are interviewed for recruitment, it is normal to examine their educational qualifications and teaching/research experience. However, in my opinion, their capacity to create meaningful and suitable questions in their subjects must also be ascertained.
Question setting requires skill and maturity in addition to subject knowledge. Multiple choice questions, for example, must be direct, in simple language and short. The aim should be to test the grasp of a subject rather than the examinee’s memory. In the answer choices, all distractors should not be explicitly impossible, not all of them need be wrong, but the best answer must be unique. The correct answer codes for different questions should be randomly distributed and not follow a pattern. One should avoid repeating a question verbatim from any source, as this can be answered mechanically, without application of mind.
Scoring in exams has two components. One is the level that can be reached, which depends on the amount of preparation and innate talent. The other is not losing what you deserve, which depends on how you answer in the exam. While a 100% score or first rank need not be the mark of brilliance, losing what you deserve for avoidable reasons is bad. Anxiety and stress have a severe impact on many examinees before and during exams. Charles Darwin University, Australia, lists irritability, heart palpitations, muscle pain, headache, nausea, shallow breathing, dizziness, repetitive thoughts and altered sleep/eating patterns as some indicators of test anxiety. Identifying and addressing the stressors, practising relaxation, staying healthy, systematic planning and revising sufficiently in advance, having a positive approach and acknowledging own competence are some methods of overcoming stress.
Think of academic exams like a health check-up; as a means of learning the level of academic attainment and a guide to deciding the future course of action.
The writer is Former Professor and Head/Director, Entrance Exams and Admission, Anna University, Chennai