Does Passing Traditional Exams Make You A Success in Life?

This is where I am on the subject of traditional exams being the only guide to a persons progress and ability. Why do we use this approach to check peoples readiness for the world of work? Why is getting 8 GCSE’s at A*-C by the age of 16 (and showing progress in them all)  the requirement for a person to prove they are ready for the next stage of their journey? The same can be said at 18 to gain A-levels, 21 to gain a degree and so on. I know… I hear you say it… What are you talking about, there are vocational options! Yes there are, except even these are not seen as rigorous or count in the same way anymore unless they have an exam as part of the process. At least this is certainly the case in secondary education.

Let me explain why we don’t need to pass traditional exams to be successful in life. There are many people who have become success stories after either not completing school or not being interested in traditional exams. Entrepreneurs are quite often some of those people, for example, Lord Sugar or Sir Richard Branson. These people are famous examples of successful people. What about an example of someone who is not a millionaire but still could be considered a success?

I left school with only a couple of GCSE’s but I did scrape a C grade in English and Maths. I then took BTEC qualifications, a HND and then completed a Business Degree, avoiding exams as much as possible along the way. The few exams that I sat I scraped through to say the least! After a very successful few years working in business and going from a graduate trainee position to various managerial positions and being responsible for teams of people, I had the epiphany and became a teacher completing a PGCE with Grade 1 teaching scores. All this while still being in my mid 20’s. Since then I have had 10 very successful years as a teacher ensuring my students reached at least expected targets and more often than not, aspirational targets year on year in GCSE and vocational subjects. I also worked for 6 of the 10 years as an Assistant Headteacher. I now work with a national educational awarding body training teachers and schools to develop skills in young people. The reason I have been successful is not anything to do with passing traditional exams, as I cannot remember anything from any exam I had ever taken, but mainly from the skills that I developed. This has helped me to become a better practitioner and also to be able to lead teams to successful outcomes. I would suggest that this story demonstrates success and it had nothing to do with remembering key facts and recalling them for an exam.


Lets take this argument further. I would say the reason for the praying being displayed in this drawing (above) is down to living in the hope that they do not have an off day, or that they are ill on the day, or that all the key facts have been learnt for that 2 hour exam. Why do we spend all that time preparing for a situation (the exam) that will never happen again in our lives. I will go as far as saying it is an entirely false situation and does not prepare a young person for anything that will come up again in work or in their lives.

This point was made from the other side of the coin by Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur when he made a speech at the SSAT Conference and reported by Schools Week (December 2014). He was calling for a complete rethink of assessments when he said; “At Harvard we have admitted people with straight A’s who, when they show up, are missing the most fundamental skills. The problem is that exams fail to mimic real life, relied heavily on memory and and do not engage higher thinking skills” He went on to talk about the skill of problem solving and when you have a problem in life you generally know what the desired outcome is, but it is the solution that is unknown. He then gave an example of an exam question where the problem is of a different nature. This example was taken from a physics question where the student has to work out the velocity of a car using formula that has been locked in their heads from revision. He then stated that “you end up applying a known procedure to an unknown answer“.

A couple of questions to help us think a little more about this argument: When does anyone have to pass an exam to get a pay rise in their job? Perhaps there is a need to pass an exam to get through an annual review at work? Finally, when do people sit in rows, on their own, completing a question paper about previously remembered facts in the workplace? I would suggest that for the vast majority of people (if not all) the answer is never. So, again, why do teachers spend all their time preparing young people for exams?


There is a reason and it is that an exam is the only way we have to measure the progress of young people. Skills learning is very hard to assess and show progress in. I have some sympathy for this argument although I do know an awarding body that has found creative ways of doing it.

Professor Mazur then outlined 5 ways how assessment could be adapted to suit the skills needed for the modern world and made some qualifying comments.

1) Have open book exams to mimic the real world including access to the internet.

2) A focus on feedback rather than ranking. “Ranking is a myth anyway, how can a person be captured with a letter or number.

3)  Focus on skills not content. “What do we want our students to be able to do at the end of the course?

4) All assessment should be run by colleagues or external adjudicators.

5) More peer and self assessment to let students place their work in the context of others. “Unless you can judge and regulate your own learning, you cannot advance.

Finally, this comment by Mazur gives the final rallying call. “Unless we rethink assessment, we will continue to educate the followers of yesterday rather than the leaders of tomorrow.

This is why it is so important that skills and not content become the focus of learning for the 21st century. This is why we need to concentrate on skills based learning and adapt assessment to what is described by Mazur and the arguments brought up in this blog. This is also why traditional exams do not make you a success in life.


One thought on “Does Passing Traditional Exams Make You A Success in Life?

  1. Pingback: Is Education Letting Young People Down (Updated)? | THIS Education

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