Exam anger: What did you learn to hate at school?

Today I got a tip off from science comms lecturer Alice Bell about a growing revolt amongst biology students in response to what they believe is an unfair exam paper.

BBC News reports on a Facebook 'campaign' launched against yesterday's A level biology exam. Students are apparently unhappy about the question posed by the AQA paper, citing that few had any relevance to the material they'd studied. Something to do with shrews, apparently.


These complaints have predictably found little support amongst those of us who've been there and soldiered though years of science education. Specialisation is a luxury that is afforded you incrementally in science - you start by learning a huge range of ideas and gradually delve deeper into particular areas. One student was aggreived that the exam "gave questions which were not akin to the specimen papers provided". Well, heck, if you only bothered to learn what you thought would be in the exam, I'd say that you've probably missed the point of an education. Or perhaps like director of the JCQ, Dr Sinclair, you believe that science exams should be easy because everyone "deserves a positive experience of science".

Now, we could argue all day about the different aspects of the examination system, what it was supposed to measure, the purpose of education and future generations of scientists, but that would be BORING. Instead, I'd like to embrace the self-righteous outrage of these students and ask: what did school teach you to hate? Did Eco's Name of the Rose embue you withg a long-standing hatred for meandering Italian prose? Did Patrick Fullick's textbook compel you to call forth the hordes of Cthulhu to smite the world's physicists? Did truding after a plastic football in the freezing rain turn you off exercise for life? Tell me your stories!

Oh, and just be happy you're not sitting a GCSE science exam.


More like this

GCSE English left me with an enduring hatred of Jane Austen. And not exam related but I spent a couple of months trying to purify enzymes from potatoes and got so sick of the sight of them it was about six months before I could bring myself to eat one again

My A-Level Design teacher taught me to hate art. I used to love drawing, painting and sculpting, but she sucked all the life out of it and left me with a shrivelled undervalued imagination.

I try to be creative now, but it's not the same, ideas used to come so easily, but not any more.

Sport. The changing rooms, the silly waste-of-time gymnastics, and the geeky shame of being crap at something when all those who usually inhabited the bottom of the class excelled.

As for science - half truths. When we did standard grades (Scottish GCSE equivs), we were told that what we were taught before wasn't entirely the truth because it was simplified. When we did highers (AS level equiv), ditto and of course, when we did CSYS (A-level equivs)all that had been taught before was rubbish because we were now going to 'learn it properly'. Then along came university...

Music.... couldn't sing for beans, didn't understand what was being taught, had no idea about notes, tones octaves etc... plopped for science at the earliest opportunity because it made sense and helped me understand what I saw.
It wasn't the teacher so much, she tried, but nothing seemed to make sense...
Still can't carry a tune in a bucket, but who cares?

"Well, heck, if you only bothered to learn what you thought would be in the exam, I'd say that you've probably missed the point of an education"

Ah but bear in mind that it's not just students only learning for exams, it's teachers only teaching for exams. My 'practise' for chemistry A-levels consisted of doing every past paper ever written since 1995 (which was around ten years of papers). Which gave me a profound hatred of pictures of bunsens if nothing else.

And I have *full* support for the students anger at the paper. Spending two years being force-fed huge amounts of information, the stress of knowing your university depends on it, facing every news-outlet in the world telling you that exams are useless anyway ("oh everyone gets As nowadays!"), and then sitting down to the paper to find that the people writing the exam seem to have paid bugger all attention to all this information you've wasted most of your sweet-sixteens trying your hardest to remember, and pulled a question out of thin air.

Year six teacher completely ruined Beowulf for me, to get back on topic (sorrys for A-level bitterness, still retained after four years at uni...)

What did school teach me to hate? Well, many things come to mind - school, exercise, getting up in the morning, people, life, myself...

History: I had a teacher in grades 4-8 who turned it into an exercise in memorization. Only several decades later have I learned to enjoy digging into it, looking for possible social mechanisms to explain what happened, and how it ended up getting reported.

As for the science exams, IMO science shouldn't be an exercise in memorization, and students who are turned off because it isn't should take up another subject.

Poetry. The serious kind (in contrast to silly, children's poems ala Shel Silverstein which I can still appreciate). In my school, early lessons on poetry were usually just being given the rhyming structure and a vague idea of the meter, and then being told to go write something that would inevitably be read allowed or displayed on a bulletin board. Seriously, if poetry is supposed to be a baring of one's soul, the last people I want reading it are my classmates! Then in high school, poetry was something to be endlessly dissected until it could mean almost anything (thanks AP English!).

Artificial insemination of cows. I never needed or wanted to know so much horrifying detail.

Word-by-word explication. I will never forgive Robert Frost and his little horse thinking him homosexual.

"Creative writing" and journal keeping. Horrible when forced.

You wouldn't think you'd need school to do it, but bloody Free Willy. Our Year 9 English Lit teacher patronisingly thought what we really needed after 6 months studying Shakespeare was the novelisation of the motion picture of Free Willy. She made us have all these conversations about how the kid was treating the Wale like a parent.

That same teacher later ended up as a contestant on Big Brother.

My A-Level chemistry teacher said there was no point in teaching me because I already knew I didn't want to be a chemist. So I mainly just hated her. That and the toilets at the Millennium Dome, which oddly ended up in a really weird question in my mock general studies A/S. I remember still holding a grudge at them when, a couple of years later, I got sent to the Dome for work.

I have a friend who is currently being turned off by a first-year university biology because every week there is a two-hour practical, completely divorced from the lectures, that comes with 25 pages of typed notes and about 80-100 new words and names to remember. The material is about 20 years out of date and I have had to go in the next day to show her the things the lab instructor could not find. Before the course began we were told that it is given by a good lecturer!

For myself, I was turned off history for a number of years by a teacher who was genuinely puzzled when I asked why we only did political history ("What other kinds are there?")

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

Chemistry - my chemistry teacher was vile. It was a terrible combination of:
- misogyny (he could never get over the fact that the school has suck so low as to accept girls)
- his irrational conviction that his subject was infinitely superior to any other, and any other opinion (especially being a girl) only strengthened his conviction of how stupid you truly were
- impatience with and occasional outright anger at any student that didn't immediately grasp what he was saying.

So it was all about the teacher and the poor subject never stood a chance. I wasn't too bad at biology & physics so I'd love to go back and find out, if I'd had a different teacher, whether I would have been any good at chemistry


Could not for the life of me get the hang of a geometric proof. My teacher took me aside and asked me what I planned to be in life and I said a lawyer. She then said, disparagingly, you'll never be a lawyer if you can't even do a simple proof. That's what the law is all about.

Today I'm a lawyer practicing for over 15 years.

I guess it also caused me to hate that teacher as well.

For me it would have to be the Irish language, and I imagine that 90% of people who attended school in Ireland would give the same answer.

I guess it was in part a combination of the fact that it was compulsary right up to Leaving Cert and the fact that it was pretty much guaranteed to be useless to you after that was a significant factor, but the course itself was badly out-dated and didn't seem to know whether it was teaching people who were assumed to already know Irish about Irish literature or teaching us Irish as a "foreign" language.

The result, 20 years after finishing with it, and after 12 years in which it was tought almost every day at school, I remember about enough to be able to ask where the shop is (I remember far more French and German which I studied for less than half that time). What a waste of time and energy!

Or maybe the problem the students had with the exams is something akin to a student who complained during an exam, "This question is about elephants, and never once did you mention elephants in lecture. How am I supposed to answer this?"
In a well modulated and calm tone I explained to the student that "Everything you need to know about elephants to answer the question using a concept that was covered in lecture was provided."


Although it was on the O-level syllabus, the school I was at (in a rural area in the 70s) decided to omit all mention of evolution. This left biology as pretty much all description and no explanation (or, as I've seen it described "the science of coloured pencils") - as AK puts it above, "an exercise in memorization".

Dickens. I *despise* Dickens. You would too, if you spent half a year studying "Bleak House." I also have a healthy disrespect for anyone who was paid by the word.

On top of that, I learned to hate over-arching rules with no room to interpret. In biology, we dissected fetal pigs with SAFETY SCISSORS, because our county did not permit anything like knives on school property. Such flat applications of stupid rules makes for a very suppressed education, if education it can indeed be called. More and more of these stupid rules are put into place in school systems every time there's a scare (and I graduated high school *before* Columbine).

Madame Bovary.

Just reading, I didn't enjoy it, but I didn't HATE it. What made me hate it was the teacher who effectively told me I was too stupid to understand literature because I failed to see it's awesomeness.

I had an 11th grade precalculus teacher who had a habit of including exam questions for which a knowledge of football was required. Football terminology was not taught in class.

While it has been too many years for me to remember the question, I distinctly remember writing in "What's a field goal?" on a question that made no sense because I didn't realize that a field goal and a touchdown were different things.

I don't know if he made me hate math, but he engendered a prejudice against football I never have overcome.



What a waste of perfectly good neurotransmitters and hippocampal acreage. About as useful as astrology, bird omens, and dousing.

*Hugs* for Ed Yong @ #15. :-)

Ooooh geometry.

I remember being an awkward, left handed 9th grader spending ALL period writing out a proof on the blackboard while class went on around me because I was too timid to ask, and the teacher insufficiently imaginative to suggest that I just write the thing on a piece of paper.

I write on blackboards all the time now, but it took me a long time to figure out how to do it comfortably.

Never had a problem with exams. I did end up hating all the books we studied in English. Shakespeare: fine. Short stories: fine (and I even went on to read the novel that grew from one of them and enjoyed it). Poetry: (didn't study it that much) fine.

By Katherine (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

Trudging after football. Only it wasn't plastic, it was leather and sodden and heavy and it bloody hurt if it got near enough for me to do anything and the whole affair was bloody cold and miserable and when I emigrated to Australia I didn't have to do it any more.

But then there was cricket and the ball hurt even more, but at least it wasn't cold and with a bot of luck I would be bowled out first ball and go and sit down in the shade.

By Keith Harwood (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

English. By the last year of NZ high school, I was so sick of being spoon-feed in my english class I stopped pay attention and just stuffed around, it even made Shakespeare utterly boring, that and being forced to read Angela's Ashes. It wasn't until just before the exam that I actually found something other than the work we'd done on Gattaca that I liked, which was something to do with Shakespeare's King Lear and I think it was anti-monarchist themes within it, or maybe it was human rights...

And then there was statistics. I like stats, but the way it was taught made me turn off it.

But yeah, the whole "simplification" paradigm in science education is rather frustrating, and I still don't understand why they use it, instead of doing it the way it's done in university.

Where to start ?


white male mathematics teachers. although my (white male) calculus teacher partially rescued the group from my eternal hatred. the same applies to all -- white, black, brown -- male physics teachers. i actually *love* mathematics, and i even like physics (even though it's not "pure math") but the unrestrained misogyny of these two groups of teachers is truly astounding.

white male mathematics teachers

Clearly, I should count my blessings. All of my white male mathematics teachers in high school (and at least two in college) always seemed tickled pink with the idea that the best student in their class was a girl. The thing that almost made me hate mathematics was the elementary school rote memorization followed by hundreds of god-awful boring problems (not to mention the timed tests where you had to do 100 simple math problems in 5 minutes).

Two hours of rugby, in the rain, on a Thursday afternoon, followed by two hours of maths, semi-concussed and sweating like a pig.

Our curriculum organisers were cruel and unusual people.

Being forced to read 'classic' literature in school [like Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Thomas Hardy's The trumpet Major and the worst of the lot, Shakespear's Taming of the Shrew] has left me with an extreme reluctance to read any fiction written before 1940!

I know there are some great works of literature I am missing out on, but call it pride or prejudice, I just cannot bring myself to wade through literary prose. Give me a good SFF novel any day! I guess the convent education failed to make me a 'good girl'!!!

I wish there were more subjects in all subjects I was exposed to in classes before college, but it's not something I hate because I often looked them up on my own. Subjects I hate lean heavily on English and literature, because they're the ones that come to mind.

Reading Shakespeare. I was on the stage crew for the duration of high school and several times in college, I don't see the point in just reading that material. It's like licking a painting to see what it means.

Forced reading, particularly genres I'm not interested in or that have been put on the list to fill some sort of cultural void. I loathe Kingsolver.

Poetry. I find it bizarre that I could be told repeatedly that I didn't understand poems, yet when asked to write them get such high marks for my creativity and imagination.

Grammar. I remember exercises in grammar that required finding grammatical errors and correcting them, under time constraints, when half of them were usually poor word choice or otherwise awkward wording that still made sense. To me, most writing oculd be improved with a few people looking at it, that doesn't make the grammar wrong. It's called editing. Maybe I just feel that way because those were the first assignments I ever failed and I was intensely competitive over grades.

I'm sure I could think of more.

By ABradford (not verified) on 04 Feb 2010 #permalink

old topic but found it interesting because I'm taking summer classes to get some basics out of the way. I'm in having to take a computer technology class as one of my basics. This class is teaching me how to use Microsoft office >< and at the end there is a 2 hour exam on word and another 2 hour exam on excel. OMG does it suck. We use a simulator for the exam and it ask things like "Make the .... text bold" Note: You cannot use the keyboard shortcut. It wants you to use the longest way possible to complete a question. If you accidentally click on a wrong button or anywhere other than where you're suppose to click you get it wrong.

So yeah I hate this computer class and the ones that designed this crappy sim.

By marketing text… (not verified) on 30 Jun 2011 #permalink

it cut me off at my angry face... anyways the part that got cut off said:

specifically word and excel and at the end of the learning we have to take a 2 hour exam for both of them. The test is in a simulator that ask you to so things like "Bold the ... text" Note: You cannot use the keyboard shortcut. WTH!! SO yeah it really sucks and I've come to hate excel, word, and the developers of this stupid sim.

By text marketing (not verified) on 30 Jun 2011 #permalink