Review literature assessment format

I agree with Mr Tay Hong Yi's assessment that literature examinations are turning students away from studying the subject ("Timed exam incompatible with literature"; Aug 27).

The very design of these examinations are unnecessarily harrowing and poor arbiters of success; we should review the way we assess students in the subject. 

For the O-level literature exams, students are expected to produce a critical, detailed analysis of a text within 45 minutes, on average, per essay.

Sometimes, the questions come in two parts, leaving students with only 20 minutes for each one.

This problem is compounded by the fact that literature exam questions can be much more subjective than those of other subjects.

Most students can cope with the time given to them in other humanities subjects like history and economics because each question demands similar or consistent principles that can be memorised beforehand. Literature examiners, however, ask far more unique questions.

Considering the varied themes and subject matter that can be covered by a literary text, it is almost impossible to have students enter the exam hall with a set template of questions and answers.

Students may find themselves faced with an unfamiliar question that necessitates them taking more time to plan their responses.

The pure essay format of the exams also means that the students have only a small margin for error - once they embark upon a misguided thesis, there is no way for them to reverse it within the given time.

This could mean that able students may be heavily penalised for mistakenly interpreting a single word while under pressure.

No wonder, then, that many students in Singapore are afraid to take up literature.

The current exam format prizes speed over depth of thought, and Singapore may well be losing many talented individuals by penalising them on such metrics.

I fully support Mr Tay's suggestion of placing more emphasis on continuous assessment. Students should also be given more time to plan their responses to questions in exams in order to prevent erroneous question interpretation.

While our assessment systems should be rigorous, they should also give students the opportunity to show examiners their best work.

Ng Qi Siang