Exams join the real world

Exams for 16-year-olds have seen many changes with questions now relating much more to real world contexts. That’s the finding of research looking at papers in seven subject areas from 1867 to 2007 by Cambridge Assessment , which is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary. 

The research looked at papers every ten years from 1867 through to 2007 in Maths, Geography, Physics, Art, Food Technology, French and English Literature. An increase in the number of questions relating to real-world contexts was found in most subjects, along with a greater amount of choice both in terms of different options and the methods by which candidates could display their skills.

  • Traditionalists fearing Shakespeare's removal from the GCSE syllabus might be surprised to hear that studying the Bard was optional for the best part of the 20th century and only made mandatory in recent years.
  • Geography exam papers have seen more changes in the past 10 years than in the previous 100, with the emphasis now very much on the impact of human activity on the world.
  • Art exams have evolved from requiring candidates to complete simple geometrical drawing tasks within two hours to multi media projects taking up to six weeks to prepare.
  • Anyone who sat a maths exam at the age of 16 in the 1970s may find that it had more in common with those of the 1850s than with today's papers, with emphasis today on transferable numeracy for the workplace.
  • After years of requiring candidates to demonstrate practical cookery skills, food technology and home economics exams today incorporate scientific experiments and design of mass market products.
  • The examining of French in the UK has only truly reflected real life situations in the last 20 years and was originally based on a pure French not always widely used in France.
  • Physics exams have gone from offering candidates an opportunity to perform school laboratory skills under pressure to requiring an understanding of the subject in a real-world context.

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