Cambridge Assessment, responsible for administering the Cambridge and IELTS examinations, is giving a series of talks this year as part of the Festival of Ideas, on exam structure and past papers.
I wouldn’t describe OISE as an exam factory (and I have worked at one or two) but we get our share of candidates passing through. The exam, or level
test, is the supreme quantifier of the age. We are the sum of our results, or so we are led to believe. And so we sweat and worry, and we take our
exams. Very often we take exams in order to gain entrance to institutions where we will take yet more exams. Your life is like an accumulator bet:
one false step and the whole house of cards will collapse, and you will have to go off in search of new examinations to take.
But how do we prepare? For most exams, it is a question of looking at the past papers. Past papers are the best (perhaps the only) indicators of possible
future questions, just as the best indicator of popular baby-names is not the birth of a prince or the advent of some celebrity but whatever last year’s
names were. There will be considerable drift over time, but not much change, year to year.
Books of past papers are big business; you could, if you had sufficient patience, read all possible future questions in the shattered mirror of past
papers, just as chess masters study and memorise thousands of games, their openings and progressions, the problems they threw up and the solutions
The problem with learning lessons from the past, as both strong chess masters and human beings routinely discover, is that you may very well be learning
the wrong lessons. You are left rehearsing the answers to questions which will never be posed again. The future may be a version of the past, but there
are infinite versions available. Better perhaps to burnish up your native skills and trust them to pull you through, treating each exam question as
a newly-configured challenge. Better also to bear in mind that asking the right questions is sometimes (often? always?) more important than finding
answers to questions that others have posed. Socrates after all was fond of asking questions, and had something to say about the unexamined life. Then
again, he hadn't dreamt of a world in which IELTS was the gateway to success.