are you an english exam in disguise?

Today i had my first formal Christmas exam and it went surprisingly well. As usual, when i sit any exam, i scan through the paper from start to finish and give myself a rough mark before i start writing. I also noticed an error with the labelling of questions – perhaps we should get full marks for the confusion / doubt / stress caused 🙂


I know within the first couple of minutes how i’ll do. Some questions are bankers, others are hit and miss and then some i just write of as a loss all together. I got about 40-45% in today’s exam. I needed about 6% to pass, so it was more than comfortable and i knew that as soon as i opened the paper.

It is amazing though how some questions can answer themselves and that questions later on in the paper can be used to answer questions earlier in the paper. Some questions are just a dictionary test. Explain… bla bla bla. What is… bla bla bla.

An example from today.. “distinguish between the terms ‘fragmentation’ and ‘replication’ in a distributed database system”.

Jackpot. 5% of the paper riding on that question. In my opinion, anyone could answer that question without having studied the subject. It’s an english test. If you know what both of those terms mean, you can waffle.

  • Fragmentation = Frag Grenades, fragments of glass, little pieces, splitting… a commonly used term.
  • Replication = replicate, reproduce, cloning, copying… another commonly used word.

So we know what both terms mean but how do we apply them to a ‘distributed database system’. That’s the scary bit i suppose but even then you just need to maintain composure and give the illusion you know what you’re talking about… you’ll get most of the marks.

  • “In relation to a distributed database system, fragmentation is quite simply the splitting up of a database in to smaller parts”.
  • “In relation to a distributed database system, replication is the process of copying data from one database to another”.

Now i have no ‘why’ or ‘how’ in those answers and that’s because it probably involves a bit of knowledge, but you could still have a real go at guessing without any knowledge. So you, or i, or anyone can have a stab at that question and pick up some of the marks simply because we understand the question and can define a couple of words.

Now for foreign students, this isn’t bluffable or common sense when it’s not their native language. They have to (a) understand what the word means in english (b) associate it with a similar word in their own language and then start translating in their heads. Much harder.

Anyway, they’re the kind of opportunities i’ll take advantage of in exams, even if i haven’t a clue. And they’re pretty common too. I suppose that’s the frustrating thing about college as well. There will be people who will study their asses off but they’re just not good writers or can’t put their thoughts down on to paper in the way they’d like to. So the pressure of exams can get the better of them and despite the fact they understand the material, they just can’t give that impression when writing. Fail a subject, fail the course and it’s game over for some people.

We do have a lot of continuous assessment work designed specifically to make it easier, fairer and less stressful for everyone but i really don’t see how final exams benefit anyone. Personally, i don’t gain from them. I do study for certain exams if i need the marks, but if i liked a subject that much, i’d have learned about it over the last 3 or 4 months, not a couple of days before an exam.

If i do study a few days before an exam, i’ll memory dump everything straight after it because i’ve learned for ‘business’ reasons, not out of love or curiosity. Still, i suppose that’s just how things work. I’ve no doubt that we’ll look back in years to come and laugh at our current system of learning though… junior cert, leaving cert & beyond. Much like we laugh now about punishment via whips and belts…

  • How much is willingly learned -v- how much is learned because it has to be?
  • How much of the stuff that has to be learned is actually useful / used again in real life?

They’re the two questions i’d like answered…

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