A letter to give to your parents about exams

A letter to give to your parents about exams

This is an article written by an academic, Catharine Lumby, to other parents about why they need to chill about exam marks

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Exams aren't the be-all-end-all.
Photo: SCMP

"I have a son in year 12 who is preparing for his final year exams. Let me pause my typing for a moment to take a deep breath, which I seem to need to do frequently these days.

Many readers of this column will have seen their children through the same process – or are yet to experience the delights of having a stressed-out teenager in their house. A house they formerly thought the entire family shared.

But not when the final year of high school begins. Formerly innocuous events – the ringing of a mobile phone, a work conference call after 4pm, a dog barking across the road, loud teeth brushing – all of these are triggers for a potential nuclear explosion issuing from the room of the said exam candidate.

I love my son. And he loves me – most days. And I genuinely don’t care what mark he gets in his exams. I’m an academic and, as a result, I know that there are many pathways into university education.


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Look to humanities or science

When other parents ask me about their own kids’ futures and what mark they need, I recommend that they encourage their children to do an excellent humanities or science degree as a foundation for a future career.

You don’t need a ridiculously high mark to get into a good humanities or science degree. And when you’ve finished one you are far better placed to work out who you are and what you want to do in career terms. If you want to do medicine, law, commerce, communications, or become a chef or fashion designer then you can do a postgraduate degree. Or get a job in the relevant industry.

Try telling that to my darling and highly timetabled son. Which is why I’m writing this column. To tell other parents going through the same thing that I’m living with – chill out about the marks they get. Try to get the child you love to do the same.

I know about this stuff because I founded the media and communications degree at Sydney University in 2000 and it’s pretty much impossible to get into. The mark required hovers around 99.

Exams don't test what you think they do

I worked as a journalist for 15 years before I had the privilege of designing that degree. I know perfectly well that being a good journalist requires far more nuanced skills than passing final year exams. Most final exams are ridiculously formulaic. They don’t encourage or test what I consider genuine creative and critical intelligence. They reward rote and generic learning.

We are living with an education system that belongs back in the 19th century. It’s all about teaching young people to tick boxes, sit up straight and regurgitate what they’ve learned which fits into a matrix the examiners use to assess the exam papers.


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Of course, there are many wonderful teachers and examiners who actively look out for individual thinkers and reward creativity. But they are, sadly, highly constrained by bureaucratic rules about what should be taught and how it is assessed.

The best teachers are always the ones who look out for the outliers – the ones who ask the wrong questions, not the obvious ones. My son has had the privilege of being taught and nurtured by amazing teachers. Many of them have helped me become a better parent.

Education is about lighting a fire

The poet W.B Yeats said that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. That’s what a wonderful undergraduate arts or science degree can do to help young people grow into curious, empathetic and thoughtful adults. They are the people we need more of in our world.

We need young people who know why they want to enter a profession. Who know who they want to be – and know what they want to do to contribute to a world deeply in need of passionate engaged citizens. 

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