The Paradox of on demand exams


But which one is best when there is so much choice?

It is more blessed to give than receive, so it says in the bible, and Christmas is a time when you get to do this in abundance. What better feeling can there be when you find exactly the right present for that special person. You can even imagine the smile on their face when on Christmas day they rip open the paper to reveal the gift they either never new they wanted but did, or in their wildest dreams believed they could have or own.paradox-wonderful-christmas-time-1

BUT…….its not as easy as it used to be. Deciding on what you want to buy is one thing, finding the “best” or most suitable gift is another.

Paradox of choice

Although Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote his book called The Paradox of Choice over 12 years ago, most if not all of what he said is more relevant today with the explosion of choice created by the internet and advances in technology. He argued that choice rather than being good, and by the way the basis for freedom, was not necessarily bad, but did not always result in the best decisions being made or to be precise, the feeling that the best decisions had been made.

There were two reasons for this, firstly, too much choice creates paralysis, a delay in the decision-making process (see also Buridan’s ass) that can result in no decision being made at all, and secondly if you do decide, ultimately you will become less satisfied with your choice for a variety of reasons e.g. regret, opportunity cost and the escalation of expectation.

But what has this all got to do with examinations?

On demand exams result in their own paradox

In the world of professional examinations for many years’ students and employers have been asking for more choice as to when the exam can be sat. Its only tradition and inflexible systems that have created a need for testing to take place at specific times of the year. But with technology comes flexibility and that flexibility now means that some examinations can be sat when you want, not when the professional body or university decides. Driving tests have long followed the concept of, “on-demand” testing.

This choice is however resulting in a paradox. Students are taking longer to pass their exams but despite having more time results are not improving. You would expect that having additional time to study would improve exam success not reduce it.

One of the reasons for taking longer to pass is because it is now within the student’s power to change the exam date if they so wish. There are a number of good reasons for doing this, for example, work pressure, not feeling ready for the exam or that you dont know enough. Logical reasons but are they “good” reasons?

That all depends of course on the objective, but if the objective is to pass the exam quickly, then the answer is no.

The best of both worlds

Schwartz never concluded that having a choice was bad, just that it was not the end game. Ultimate choice is not the objective. He did say that we should perhaps stop thinking in terms of maximising choice but set some standards that can be used to help navigate the choices available.  In fact, this is borne out by some initial research into this area which shows that students increase their chances of passing if they set an exam date, (the choice) enable sufficient time to study but don’t change the exam date later (the standard). The choice when to pass can be set but neither the length of study nor the exam date should change.


Consult an expert – What do people do when they are faced with such a wide range of options they cannot decide, how about asking an expert? In this instance the expert would be the educational establishment or the examining body, what do they recommend?

Follow the norm – Data is now more readily available than ever before, many technologies make use of historical trends to make predictions or to offer advice when there are lots of choices. Everyone will be familiar with the web sites that suggest books or other items you should buy based on past behaviours. What worked best for you in the past, what did you do before that was successful or what do the most successful people do?

Now that we have cleared up how to make better decisions in a world of endless choices – I need to begin thinking about my New Year’s resolutions, oh dear if only there were not so many choices.

Happy new Year to you all

Click to watch Barry Schwartz TED lecture.



For example – how to get higher marks in written questions


It’s great to be knowledgeable, but to pass an exam knowing the answer is often not enough. Questions set by examiners seek to do far more than identify people who “know stuff,” they want the student to prove understanding and that they can use the knowledge, not simply reproduce it.

The knowing doing gap

There is sometimes a disconnect between what you know and what you can explain. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know what I want to say but can’t find the words” or “what more can I say, I feel like I am just repeating the same point”. This may be the result of a lack of understanding and simply requires more study (see Eureka I understand understanding) or it might be that you just need a better way to think about what you’re trying to do.

Analyse, Explain – clarify – Example e.g.e.g.e.g.

Imagine you’re faced with a question, it asks that you, provide a possible  explanation as to why we have seen a fall in stock market prices in recent weeks and what impact this might have on  economic growth in the UK . Often the first problem is knowing where to start, below are a few ideas that might help.

You will need a few headings to help give structure, these can often be found in the question, here for example we could use, Why stock markets might fall and Impact on the UK. Then under each heading think about analysing, explaining, clarifying and giving examples. These are not headings; they are to help expand on what you have been asked to do and give a perspective from which to think.

  1. First you analyse – If you analyse something you break it up into smaller parts so as to gain a better understanding. For example going back to the question, perhaps we should identify exactly by how much the stock market has fallen, over what period, what other events were happening at the same time, do we have any theories that could help or theoretical models we could apply etc. By examining what you have found, something new and obvious may become clear.
  1. Then you explain – an explanation is an attempt to make clear what you mean. One way of doing this is by making a series of statements. So for example, if you noticed that during the period in which we had the fall in the stock market, China’s economy also slowed and oil prices fell to unprecedented levels. This might lead you to make the statement – one of the reasons for the fall in stock market prices would appear to be the slowdown in the Chinese economy and the fall in demand for oil.

A subset of explanation is clarification. Definitions are a great way to clarify exactly what something means and in what context it is being used. Here for example we might want to include a definition of economic growth.

  1. And finally the example itself, possibly one of the very best ways of explaining and a very powerful technique to demonstrate understanding.

Example “Metaphor’s forgotten sibling”. John Lyons

It may be a reference to a real world example. In the question we have to address the impact on the growth in the UK economy. If you gave an example of the last time oil prices were so low and what happened as a result you will not only be demonstrating breadth of knowledge but also moving the debate forward, suggesting perhaps that the same will happen again?

Real world examples demonstrate the complexity and unpredictability of real issues, and as such, can stimulate critical thinking.

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with their own prior knowledge and real-world experiences. Piaget et al

An example may also be a construct, something that you talk through to illustrate a point. For example, let us imagine the impact of falling oil prices on an engineering company in the West Midlands. A reduction in oil prices would result in lower transportation costs that could be passed onto customers in the form of lower prices, in turn this should increase demand.

“Examples are indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and they appertain to the domain of intuition”. Kant

Although this blog has covered an approach to structuring written answers, it is the use of examples that for me is the most important. And if it was not obvious enough, look how many times I used examples to explain what I was trying to say …….

27 Million People per day can’t be wrong – Gamification

League of LegendsThe statistics are astonishing, as of January 2014, over 67 million people play League of Legends per month, 27 million per day, and over 7.5 million concurrently during peak hours. And if your good at it the prize money for winning the world championship might get you to question your chosen profession, it was $2.3m in 2014 and 2015. Playing an on-line game is part of daily life for many people.

This blog is “of course” not about League of Legends. In fact I have to admit I had never heard of it, just shows how far out of touch you can become with popular culture. It’s not even about the gaming industry which is said to be worth £3.9 bn to the UK economy, it’s about a growing and fascinating area of learning called gamification.

Gamification is the use of game mechanics (rules, design and tools) in a non game context to better engage and motivate learners to achieve a desired objective. There are two types, structured, where you are looking to propel a learner through content and reward them for the desired behaviours and content driven where the game is the content i.e. the learner is a character in the game and is required to undertake tasks that are in turn rewarded.

Gamification techniques – Game mechanics

Games are not of course all the same but they do have similar characteristics, these “techniques” can then be used in a non game context i.e. a learning context. The idea being that if they engage and motivate the gamer, they will do the same for the student.  Games need some form of measurement to assess performance and a reward to act as an incentive.  Below is a note of some of the measurements and rewards used in gaming but could be adapted for learning.

  • Points – Used to keep score
  • Badges – visual stamps that are awarded to users on certain achievements and are normally displayed in their header and profile page
  • Levels – shows ranking and progress
  • Leader boards – a high score that is displayed for all to see
  • Rewards – not a badge but something tangible e.g. money….

Personal gamification

You don’t need to spend millions developing a game to get the benefits from gamification, and its not all about beating others, here are a few tips.

  • Set up a points system – identify the activities that will help you achieve your goal e.g. spend 2 hours each evening studying, 10 points. Answer 2 questions each evening, 20 points. Attempt the mock exam, 40 points. Score 50%, 80 points etc. Keep a running total of your points in a place that you can see when you study
  • Levels – Only move onto the next chapter or session when you have the desired points
  • Leader board – Keep a note of your highest score from the other subjects
  • Rewards – The best part. Set up a series of rewards e.g. a night off, go for a run, have a glass of wine, bar of chocolate etc. Increase the rewards as gaining the points becomes more difficult. If you beat your leader board score, then your rewards can be even greater, maybe a day out shopping/at the football etc. Why not ask others to contribute to the reward, if I get to the top of my leader board how about you buy me dinner. You will be surprised how many people, friends and family will effectively sponsor you.Other brands are available....

And finally tell your friends what you have done, “just eating a massive bar of chocolate which was my reward for scoring 80 points on my study game.”

Of course you might get fat doing this, but don’t worry there is another game that can help – it’s called weight watchers…..

Technology can help

As ever technology can help, check out this app HabitRPG – Click 

Staying the course – commitment

Mo-Farah-EthiopiaYesterday Brendan Foster described Mo Farah as the greatest sportsman Britain has ever had. You may of course disagree, it’s probably one of those conversations best left to have in the pub, I am sure there are many worthy contenders. Farah responded modestly by saying that because we have so many great sportsman simply being put in the “great” category was amazing. He nominated his greats, David Beckham, Sir Alex Fergusson and Sir Steve Redgrave.

Watch Mo win the 5,000 meter gold at the world athletics championship 2015.

I have to confess to knowing little about sport or in fact having much interest, but what has always impressed and inspired me is the level of commitment successful sportsmen and women have. I have written in the past about Sir Steve Redgrave who won gold medals in five consecutive Olympics. How do you do that, how do you get up every morning and work towards a goal that is four years away, every day for 25 years?

Mandy Monday – procrastination

Start MondayMandy is a weight watcher character who promises to start her diet on Monday, in the interest of gender equality I am sure there is a male equivalent let’s call him Marty. Of course Monday never comes and so although Mandy sort of commits to Monday she constantly puts it off, choosing to do “other things” in preference. Initially this seems like you are delaying the pain in favour of the pleasure but I am not sure delaying something that is in your best interest is pleasurable? Pleasure implies satisfaction and I don’t think you feel satisfaction, probably more like relief.

Exams – you need to commit

It can be like this with studying and exams. Very few students want to sit an exam, its hard work, stressful and you might fail. So if you were given a choice when to sit the exam when would it be, Monday?

In fact delaying an exam can feel perfectly logical and rational. This is how the internal conversation might sound. “I have to sit this exam and it’s not going to be easy, to pass you need to know everything. There is no point sitting the exam if I am not 100% ready, an athlete wouldn’t enter a race if they weren’t 100% fit, it’s like that for me. The best thing to do is sit the exam in another month, another month is all I need, then I will be ready.

The million dollar question is do you ever feel ready?

On demand exams – Set the date and stick to it

If the exam was once every four years my guess would be that most students would not put the exam off, can you imagine waiting another four years? But when an exam is on demand and its left to the individual when you have to take the exam, you never have to commit. At the back of your mind you know that you can always delay. This means you never made the commitment in the first place.

But how to commit – Take a calendar and pick the date you want to finish all of your exams, when you want to qualify, write it down. Then list out all the exams you have to pass to get there, set dates for these and write them down as well. Put them on a wall chart, electronic calendar, even post them on Facebook, they cannot change. These dates are no longer in your control; you have passed that to someone else and in so doing have made the commitment to yourself. Go on do it now!

And finally an antidote to exams

Not anti school, but pro education – If you have not seen any of these spoken word videos – watch this one. Why I hate school but love education, you will not be disappointed.

Ps if you like the no add video check out quite tube.

Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse

Releasing PressureI have long been interested in the way knowledge from one domain can help inform another and have had two very good examples of this recently, both leading in the same direction.



The first came from an engineering friend of mine who started a conversation about the meaning of stress and pressure in his world. He described stress and pressure as essentially the same except being applied in different forms. Pressure is applied on the external surface of a body, while stress is the internal resistive force per unit area of that body, which resists its elongation or compression.

Alternatively – Stress is generated within the material whereas pressure is the applied force.

The second example came from a stress management seminar* I recently attended, not so abstract you might say but it wasDont let the bridge collapse the analogy the presenter used that was interesting. He asked that we thought of a bridge, the cars going over the bridge created pressure on the bridge and as a result the bridge would experience stress.

No matter how strong the bridge, there was a point that if too many cars were on at any one time it would collapse.

How does this help?

Analogies can be very helpful where it’s difficult to conceptualise or understand complex ideas. For example the bridge will show signs of stress before it collapses. This is no different for people; signs of stress will be present well before the stress levels are high enough to cause problems e.g. short temper, lack of sleep, headaches etc.  Also if we carry on with the analogy, there are two ways in which you can make sure the bridge doesn’t collapse. One, don’t have so many cars on the bridge and two, support the bridge so that it can take more cars. This translates into reducing the number of external pressures you are under (less cars) and having coping strategies to help when you are under pressure (some support).

Pressures when studying

A lot of pressures when studying are time related, for example taking on too many subjects or having to study as well as holding down a responsible job.  But some pressure might be created by the way you feel about yourself, not being capable or clever enough. Also people often put themselves under pressure – interesting term “putting yourself under pressure” by having very high expectations or maybe those expectations are put upon them by others.

The simple answer – take some of the cars off the bridge, reduce the number of subjects your studying, lower your expectations etc. This is not to say that having high expectations is not good, but if it is affecting your performance in a negative way, then you have to do something. And I know it may not be easy to do this in all circumstances; do you step down from that responsible job, how practical is that?  Yet if you do nothing, the bridge will collapse and that has to be avoided at all costs.

The alternative to taking cars off the bridge is to add in extra support.

Strategies to cope

Lazarus and Folkman in 1984 suggested that stress is the result of an “imbalance between demands and resources” or results when “pressure exceeds one’s perceived ability to cope”. They came up with two types of coping responses.

Emotion-focused – These techniques work very well when the stress is or at least appears to be outside the individual’s control.

  • Keep yourself busy to take your mind off the issue – just keep working through the course
  • Let off steam to other students/partners, anyone who will listen in fact
  • Pray for guidance and strength – and why not
  • Ignore the problem in the hope it will go away – not always ideal but the problem may sort itself
  • Distract yourself – go for a run
  • Build yourself up to expect the worse – “I will probably fail anyway”

Problem-focused – These techniques aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stress.  These are similar to taking cars off the bridge.

  • Take control – being out of control is often the cause of much stress. Revaluate what the problem is, and ask is it worth it!
  • Information seeking, perhaps the most rational action. Find out what is causing the problem and look to solve it e.g. why do you have such high expectations, does it help?
  • Make a list, evaluate the pros and cons and put in order of importance.

Studying can be stressful and this can result in feeling under pressure but this is not altogether a bad thing stress and pressure are key motivational forces, so don’t think of stress as the enemy but watch out for any cracks that might appear in the bridge.

Watch this TED – Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend.

Related posts – Exam stress – or is it your stress and Exam stress Mindfulness and the “7/11”

* The course was delivered by the stress management societyclick here for their website.

Turn off the mobile – multi tasking doesn’t work

Information every whereThe background to Dr Daniel J Levitin latest book, “Thinking Straight” is that the information age is drowning us with an unprecedented deluge of data and we need to develop strategies to cope. Information overload and distraction are two problems we face when it comes to learning. How easy do you find it to concentrate when studying? Do you sit in a quiet room with no distractions and focus your attention on one task or is your mobile phone, PC or tablet sat close at hand waiting to deliver the worlds information in a second.

In the past books were precious due to their scarcity and knowledge hard to acquire the result of people’s inability to read. Following the invention of the printing press in 1450 books became more readily available but even then the amount of information any one individual was exposed to was very small. In addition the pace of life was slower, expectations as to what could be achieved balanced against the practicalities of what was humanly possible.

information_overloadBut look at the situation today, we live in an information rich society, all of it accessible at the press of a button. The problem now is not availability of knowledge (western world centric I know) but curation, synthesis and prioritisation. Yet how well is our brain programmed to cope with this new world?

Good job we can multi task

Levitin argues that multi tasking is inefficient, it’s a myth. The idea that one solution to this deluge of data is to do several things at the same time is simply wrong.  When you are doing two things at once, reading a book whilst monitoring your Twitter feed or face book account for example you are not in fact doing two things at once, you’re switching between neurones very quickly and this is giving the illusion of multi tasking. The downside of this process is it drains energy, neurones need glucose and the constant switching depletes it, resulting in poor concentration and an inability to learn as effectively. Multi tasking

I have written before (Attention Breach of duty as a student) on the importance of focusing your attention on one thing at a time and Levitin is supporting doing just that. However he does add something that I think is of interest. When you flit between two competing information sources the brain will reward you with a shot of dopamine, the pleasure drug. The result being you will enjoy the experience. This was valuable for Stone Age man because discovering a new food source at the same time as avoiding being eaten was helpful but in a modern world it is just problematic.

Externalise the information – organise, reduce and prioritise

What Levitin suggests is that you need to externalise, get the information out. In simple terms write it down, making lists is an example of externalising. He also states that you should write rather than type as this requires deeper processing.

So if you want to follow a more brain friendly approach to learning you should:

  • Break information down (A common message) into chunks and write out the key points. This will help you focus and process the information at a deeper level.
  • Find a place that is free from distraction, turn off all mobile devises. This is probably the most important message; your brain does not deal well with doing two things at once.
  • Make a list of what you have to do. Interestingly this is where technology can help. Google calendar can set up simple reminders so that you don’t have to keep distracting yourself by thinking about something you need to do later.

And if you’re interested click this link to read – Why the modern world is bad for your brain.

Ps Beth this ones for you!

Big fish – little pond

Best be a Big fish in a Small pond

It’s taken me a little time to get round to reading the latest Malcolm Gladwell (MG) book, David and Goliath, underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. Although consisting of three separate sections they all examine the idea of what it means to have an advantage and how we account for the success of the underdog.

Of all the ideas MG lays before the reader, the one I felt was of most interest is something called the big fish little pond effect (BFLPE) and the theory of relative deprivation.

Relative deprivation theory (RDT)

Relative deprivation refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to others and realise they have less. e.g. I judge BMW ownermyself to be successful on the basis I have a brand new car that cost £15,000.  That is until my neighbour pulls on the drive with a brand new BMW costing £30,000, now how successful do I feel?

MG applies this theory to the world of academia. If you take Harvard’s Economics PhD programme and consider the number of times each PhD graduate was published in the last 6 years, Harvard’s top students will do this 4.31 times. Those that are about 5th or 6th in the class publish .71 times and those that are about average .07 times. If however you compare these results to a “mediocre” school, say the University of Toronto, where MG went,  the top students will publish 3.13 times, those that are 5th or 6th .29 times and those that are average .05 times. The point being that students who attend a much lesser university but where they are top of their group perform considerably better than the 5/6th best at Harvard. The question is why?

The smarter your peer group the dumber you feel…..

This is where RDT comes in, we tend to judge our ability by comparing with others, and if you are in a class with very smart people who always do better than you, your perception of your own ability will be effected. The second problem is that this self perception will have a significant impact on your behaviour and ultimately what you achieve, hence the results above. The implication, you will achieve more if you are in a class with others of equal or less ability than yourself.

Bottom line, your performance will improve if you are a big fish in a small pond. It’s even called, the big fish little pond effect (BFLPE)

But what to do?

Admittedly you can’t always pick and choose your peer group, but you can be aware that comparing yourself with the very best may be having a detrimental impact on your own performance, so stop doing it! Instead be inspired by the best but compare your performance with those that are the same as you. Better still compare your current performance with what YOU have achieved in the past and if you are doing better you must be improving…..



Listen to MG talking about relative deprivation theory or if you prefer the Big Fish little pond theory….


Listen to MG being interviewed about the book