Saturday, April 12, 2014

Some little known facts about exams

Here we go again! Summer has arrived, and so have testing times. There will be examinations galore till the end of this month.  No, the ordeal will continue till the end of May because once college or university exams are over, there will be entrance exams of all kinds with little respite for students till colleges reopen in June. And exams in India are a terrible torment, given that, by and large, they are memory-oriented and content-based. As a student, I hated taking exams. And, now, as a teacher, I give exams. It's indeed one of life's little ironies! 

But I must remind myself that this post shouldn't be a diatribe against exams; it should be serious, responsible and useful. A friend brought his child to me and asked me to give her some tips -- some "inside information," as he called it -- for tackling exams. I did so with a straight face keeping in mind the key expression, inside information.

Inside information.  I liked that phrase.  As an insider, I know a thing or two about my fellow-insiders – the people who set exams and mark answers.  Knowing what kind of people they are and what will be acceptable to them will go a long way towards your securing a high score, even if you have a wonderful memory, which is basically what is tested in examinations in this country.

Examiners like neat writing.  If you have a good hand, you certainly have an advantage (not just an edge) over people whose answers are as good – or as bad – as yours.  This I discovered even as an outsider forty-three years ago.  I hadn’t expected to get more than 80 per cent in history and geography in my SSLC examination.  But I got 92 – the highest in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The extra 12, I’m sure, was for my handwriting.

Secondly, a typical examiner is a stick-in-the-mud.  So, you would do well to take the old line.  For instance, if, in the English exam, you are given the sentence, “It is me”, for correction, correct it as ‘It is I”; don’t write that there is no error in the sentence.  I know that you have heard native English people say, “It’s me” on BBC, HBO and sundry other channels, including some of our own like NDTV, CNN IBN and Times Now.  But the problem is that your examiners don’t seem to watch these channels.  In fact, “It is me” is as old as Shakespeare: in Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew says, “That’s me, I warrant you.”  Today, if someone is quirky enough to say, “It is I”, we must insist that he say, “Whither goest thou?” instead of “Where are you going?”  But the English teacher and the grammar book he has prescribed are quirky enough to believe that “It is I” is the correct form.  But give them what they want; the game you are playing in those three hours is a numbers game after all.

Thirdly, examiners love length.  If the word limit prescribed for an essay is 200 words, don't be so stupid as to use just 200 words and disappoint your examiner.  Use at least 300.  My wife often tells me that, during a meal, when I say, 'Enough,' I actually mean, 'Some more.' So is it in exams. The more, the merrier.

Fourthly, if you don’t know the answer to a question and decide to waffle away, be sensible at least in your first paragraph.  Once I evaluated a script which had tolerable first paragraphs with trash in the rest.  Curiosity led me to go in search of the earlier years’ scripts of the same student. (It's possible in an autonomous college.)  Decorated trash – that’s what I found in them: the scoundrel had got it down to a fine art.  And the rubbish had been ticked and given high marks!


  1. Your observations are absolutely true sir! I am doing the same job now

  2. I could find myself in the last paragraph, for I used to invent quotations on my own. During my Masters' course at Loyola, Chennai, two of my teachers who taught me Criticism and Green Studies want the examination paper to be inundated with some quotation or the other. Well, my memory didn't stand a good chance to remember all the quotations I referred to. If memory didn't help me, my creativity did! I created quotations on my own and tagged some imaginative names of professors or critics to the lines. I even went to the extent of quoting the source (used to mention the name of some book that I might have referred to!). My teachers, well, liked them and my Green Studies teacher was so expressive enough to tag 'Good!!' with two exclamatory marks to my creation!

  3. Funny enough. And true! It's fitting to call it a numbers game. That's simply not to talk talk about cheating -excuse me,- teaching these days...
    Feelings of a student: