Timed exam incompatible with literature

Singapore's education system relies heavily on written examinations. For many, a single timed examination paper is the main, if not the only, arbiter of the final grade.

Literature offers no security of rote answers ("Fewer Lit students a worrying trend"; Monday).

Questions fielded are often complex and highly derivative, reflecting the richness of literature, and giving literature exams a greater element of surprise.

The interpretation of examination questions becomes an art in its own right. Woe betide the student who misjudges the thickly veiled implications of seemingly elementary questions.

The teacher-guided interpretation of the text has to be cogently woven into a thesis, backed by quoted evidence from the text.

It is meant only as a baseline upon which the student must individually develop even greater intimacy with the text, to answer questions posed.

This arguably demands more from the student than other humanities subjects like geography, where the student can quite safely rely on the content of his textbook, with little individualisation, creative generation or subjective interpretation, due to the more mechanical nature of the questions asked.

The nature of literary study, as outlined above, is therefore incompatible with the use of a single timed examination as an objective measure of individual competency.

It penalises the less spontaneous yet more insightful student, in relation to a peer with less understanding but more creativity.

Fundamental reform of the manner in which we test students of literature has to be considered in order to attract more passionate yet risk-averse students.

More variety in testing methods could be the ticket; this is already observed in the implementation of School-Based Practical Assessments for the sciences to balance out written papers.

Oral presentations, skits and graded project work are also potential additions.

Tay Hong Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2015, with the headline 'Timed exam incompatible with literature'. Print Edition | Subscribe