Can exams ever be fun?

Imagine a hobby you’ve loved for years.  Think how much time you’ve spent mastering the subject and getting to know so much about it.

Chances are, you’d have no problem explaining concepts, discussing what’s important to you, and debating best practice or proper technique.  You may even enjoy it.

But now imagine you have to answer questions about your hobby in an examination setting.  You’ve got three hours to answer questions on the subject.

photo by Juliana Coutinho

photo by Juliana Coutinho

Faced with something that you know well, it’s still possible to fold under the pressure of strict exam conditions.  It’s enough to strike fear in the hearts of the most confident minds.

That’s surely how it is for those people competing for fellowships at All Souls College, Oxford.

While the All Souls exams aren’t based on hobbies, a lot is based on general concepts or open questions and statements.  Far from being restricted, candidates are given a spring board from which they can jump off in whatever way they wish.

Questions include:

  • Is it immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag?
  • “I don’t care if anyone reads my books; I write for myself,” said the author of a half-dozen published novels. Is there anything wrong with this statement as a theory of art?
  • Why do Jane Austen’s novels continue to be so popular?
  • Can any public and political institutions be trusted to reform themselves?
  • Does celebrity entail a loss of dignity?
  • Is the desire for posthumous fame irrational?
  • Can a painting change the world?
  • Can (and should) Europe maintain its relatively high standard of living as compared with emerging economies?
  • Can you love someone if you don’t respect them?

These questions are taken from a 2008 paper, as printed in the Guardian.  Candidates had to answer three questions from a list of thirty-four.  Yes, 3 our of 34 questions.  There was a lot to choose from.  Something for everyone!

When I look at the questions on offer, I have vast, philosophical answers for them all.  I start drafting answers in my head and start having a lot of fun with what’s been asked.

All Souls College has just scrapped the most open and daunting paper.  Every year, candidates were given a card with a single word on it.  It could have been “Morality”, “Harmony”, or “Water”.  One random word to write about for three hours within a scholarly essay.

Again, when I read about this exam offering, I almost squealed with glee at the possible answers I could have given.

Okay, perhaps my enthusiasm can go a bit far… 🙂

Still, the idea of having such free reign feels like something to celebrate.  It’s part of what makes academic study worthwhile.

When I tweeted about the demise of the one-word exam, I wasn’t the only person to feel a pang of sadness.  Kate Maltby called the news “a real shame” and said it “always sounded fun”.  Krishna Omkar said, “That is a great shame about All Souls, it was the one paper I enjoyed”.

Krishna makes a good point about enjoying the exam.  It’s easy to forget that while an exam may be held under timed conditions and (usually) without the help of books and notes to guide you, the purpose of an exam is to discuss or examine what you have already studied and explored.  There are not meant to be trick questions.

“The examiner is not concerned to expose the bottomless pits of ignorance in the student’s mind (however much he may suspect them to be there).  He is interested rather in the little hills of erudition which also diversify the scenery of an otherwise even plain.  In this he relies in the last resort upon the student to help him.  The student can help best not by endeavouring to conceal the pits but by drawing attention with a measure of pardonable pride to the presence of the little hills.” – C. A. Mace [The Psychology of Study]

The beauty of such open ended questions and invitations to discuss something is that you’re free to add your own questions and even to question what is being questioned to an extent.

Exam essays do not have a specific right and wrong.  There is no single correct answer.  You must attempt to answer the question and show that you grasp the relevant concepts, but you have the power to make it your own answer.

When you’re sat in the exam hall, whatever the subject is and however prepared you think you are, ignore the stuff you’ve forgotten and set aside any worry that you’re ignorant of important information.  Work on what you do know and build upon what you have learned.  You’re there to create a wonderful scene with your ‘little hills of erudition’.  You may just turn some molehills into mountains.


  1. As a 40-something postgraduate with a paralytic fear of exams this is a great post. Thanks for the attitude – “I’m here to show off what I know, (not reveal my ignorance!)”

    1. Thanks, Mark. Exams bring out fear in a lot of people. You’re certainly not alone.

      I hope the attitude gives you a spark of confidence when it counts! Best of luck in all the exams you take…and may there not be too many of them! 😉

  2. Great post! Wow, those questions made ME think! To answer the first one, yes, it is immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag when you can already use the money to help feed thousands, if not millions, of starving children around the world. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

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