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Let exams speak for themselves

The inclusion in an examination script of material other than the candidate's notes and answers is not to be encouraged. Occasionally, the marker will encounter explanations for the inadequacy of the submission - as if this could possibly influence the outcome.

Written examination is its own form of communication, and those whose powers of expression are deficient penalise themselves. One of our more mature students disappointed everyone with a paper so skeletal in content that a pass was out of the question - in spite of diligent coursework and every appearance in tutorial of a high level of comprehension. He explained that fear of insulting the intelligence of the examiner by the incorporation of trite material had persuaded him to this minimalist line. He tripled his mark on resit.

An experienced examiner can sense when he or she is dealing with ignorance of subject matter or inability to reproduce knowledge with clarity. The late Sir Thomas Smith, onetime Professor of Civil Law at Edinburgh, when offered, in reply to a question on the distinctive qualities of some piece of Roman legislation, the despairing comment, "God knows", awarded "God 100 per cent, you zero".

When the United Kingdom was about to join the European Community in 1972, many thousands of its young citizens applied for generously paid administrative posts in Brussels, with selection based on examination. I have vivid memories of joining what seemed like millions of would-be Eurocrats in Alexandra Palace for the purpose. Having decided that nothing so mundane as a bottom-rung appointment would suffice, I was one of an elite required to attempt an additional hurdle by writing a substantial essay on a given subject in a language other than our mother tongue. Everyone had plumped for French.

When the essay topic was distributed, I found to my dismay that it was in French and that I was unable to translate it. Que faire? It only became clear that I was not alone in my predicament after someone with greater resourcefulness or brass cheek requested an English translation. When this was agreed, the communal sigh of relief was eloquent testimony to our collective inadequacy.

The French was duly replaced by an English version which read: "Do you consider that the conflict based on differences of political ideology between the nations of East and West will pale into insignificance when the poor nations of the southern hemisphere rise up inevitably against the economic exploitation which they have suffered at the hands of the wealthy north?"

I reflected in a leisurely way on this interesting proposition, marshalled my thoughts and then began to write in my best French. "Oui," I wrote, then closed the book, handed it to the invigilator and left, secure in the knowledge that the examiner needed no further comment in order to draw a conclusion about my suitability for the post.

What has prompted these observations is the note appended to a script I marked last week. It expressed the fervent hope that what had gone before would be sufficient to secure a pass and went on to hint that if it were not, the examiner would bear a heavy responsibility for the potentially tragic consequences - unspecified. Once again, I was unable to translate.

As it happens, the note had no effect. By the time I reached it, the marking was complete. But I am left to contemplate whether or not it would have made a difference had it appeared at the beginning of the script. Did the candidate pass? Oui, grace a Dieu!

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