The Cult of Exams


I read today’s The Hindu Op-Ed ‘Beyond the Pass-Fail Binary‘ with interest. It talks about why discussing No-Detention Policy in isolation is a disservice to RTE act, and what the real problem is.

A paragraph there hit me particularly hard:

[…] Exams have a tendency to become the only motivation for learning. All educated Indians are thoroughly conditioned to believe that “no exams, no learning”. This belief is easily transferred to children in a system that has almost no idea of the joy of learning in itself.

My elder daughter wanted to skip the school today, many of the students had done the same the day before in her class. We refused, and she was visibly unhappy.It is exam time in her school, and everyone in her class is preparing for it, and she wants to do the same by skipping school! 

For my younger one (she is in Grade 1), it is business as usual (it is exam time for her as well) – spend time playing around, complete her homework, and play some more. However, the teacher inserts pieces of ‘homework’ in this routine that makes her prepare for the exam at the school the next day – a list of questions around common knowledge which she has to mug up, a list of vocabulary words she has to prepare, etc.

She is being trained in the art of exam prep that is so prevalent in schools today – get hold of the super-set of questions that are likely to be asked, prepare it well, ace the exam, get good marks, and everyone is happy because the kid is an ace learner. She will soon get used to this style of study and exam prep and the undue attention on the exam, and will keep acing the exams, whether or not she learns the concept.

For my elder one (she is in Grade 6), it is a bit more challenging and formal. She has been given a window of 2 weeks in which formal Summative Assessments (half-yearly exams) will be conducted, she gets days off during the exam weeks so she can prepare for them better.

Basic premise still is the same: get a superset of questions and prepare it well in order to get good marks. And it seems good marks are important, not only for students, but also for teachers. Some teachers have been creative and have made the students solve last year’s questions since questions get repeated. Since this test is so ceremonial, there is an additional pressure generated on kids; many of them don’t come to school a few days before the exam starts because they need to ‘prepare’. School condones this behavior, essentially reiterating that this ceremonial exam is a serious business and is more important than coming to class and learning. Many teachers have spent time preparing the students for the exam in the days leading to the exam, reaffirming that exam is more important than learning.

I am sure performance of school teachers will be getting measured by the performance of the students in their class (which in turn is measured by their scores in tests), so they have a vested interest in making sure students get good marks. Usually, it is much harder to ensure good marks through good learning, it is much easier to ensure good marks by preparing for exams. This means that all incentives are aligned to secure good marks in exams, often at the cost of learning. This not only is leading to this obsessive focus on exams, but also to this tendency of doing whatever it takes to get good scores, by teachers, students, and parents.

Given that this same obsession continues into competitive exams for entrance into professional courses (engineering, medical, law, etc.), I wonder where is this leading us to – a generation which is so focused on the end, and not so on the means; a generation which knows how to crack an exam, and not how to acquire and apply learning?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

One thought on “The Cult of Exams

  1. My son is in grade 5 and going through the exam process for the first time in Bangalore. He described it to a primary school teacher in US (with whom he interacted, while there), as follows (parts edited):

    …so my exam had started 10th september… so far the subjects i finished are social studies art and english litrature my next subject is science.

    my next complete exam is on feb.

    So i have been getting a few study leave’s to study but in a study leave i stay home and ashwin (my brother) goes to school and when i actually do go to school i get a half day but my mother picks me up so i am at home by 11:00 o’clock (usually).

    Right know I have a gmail account, and Youtube.

    Not much is going on for me so basically i just sit at home and do something or the other and at school i finish exam and sit there waiting for my mother to pick me up…

    i actually think i will do very well in exam except for in these two subjects art and 2nd language is hindi. well thats a brief story about me but a true story. I don’t think it even is a story.


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