Social Experiment: How Much Do Students Remember From Their Past O-Level Exams?

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school” - Albert Einstein

During the first 16 years of an individual's life, a significant amount of time is dedicated to preparing for O-Level exams. These exams serve as a crucial milestone in evaluating students' intellectual capabilities and predicting their future accomplishments based on their results.

Nevertheless, conventional examination methods have come under criticism on a global scale. Many express concerns regarding exams that primarily assess students' capacity to memorise and regurgitate information within a limited time frame. Naturally, this approach can compel students to simply reproduce their education for the purpose of achieving the exam results that they need, rather than promoting the retention of knowledge for future practical use.

Therefore, it's important to consider the relevance of the knowledge imparted in today's world. Are we being instructed solely to memorise information rather than being taught how to effectively apply it? Can we recall concepts such as the Pythagorean Theorem, or define the meaning of an adverb?

This is what we wanted to test with our Social Experiment.

In order to accomplish this, we assembled a group of 50 students between the ages of 15 and 19 to respond to O-Level exam questions extracted from past MATSEC exam papers. Within a timeframe of 30 minutes, the participants were tasked with completing the exam, consisting of 25 questions directly sourced from past papers spanning several years.

The examination featured 5 primary subjects, namely English, Mathematics, Maltese, Science, and an additional set of five General Knowledge questions, which, although not technically taught within the school curriculum, we deemed important for day to day life outside of formal education.

Before delving into the findings, it is pertinent to explore the perspectives of youths regarding our existing educational framework.

FutureHour Report: Youths’ Perspectives On Education

In 2022, FreeHour conducted an online survey aimed at obtaining a comprehensive understanding of The State of Youth in Malta. This quantitative study was conducted in collaboration with Marketing Advisory Services, who provided assistance in data analysis and the derivation of our findings.

A total of 2,037 valid individual responses were gathered from the Maltese youth population, specifically targeting individuals between the ages of 16 and 27. The sample population achieved a balanced representation, with 49.5% comprising males and 48.5% comprising females. Notably, these proportions closely align with the gender distribution reported by the National Statistics Office (NSO), which indicates that 53.5% of the population is male and 46.5% is female.

When it comes to the respondents' educational backgrounded, 49.2% indicated that they studied at public institutions. This includes establishments such as public Sixth Forms, the University of Malta, the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST), and the Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS). Conversely, 39% of the surveyed demographic were not currently enrolled in any educational program.

In general, the younger generation expressed a desire for a more comprehensive educational approach that caters to their individual needs and aspirations. Specifically, they have voiced a strong desire for enhanced education in areas such as Financial Management (85%), Stress Management (81.9%), and Entrepreneurship (74.3%). Furthermore, respondents have highlighted the absence of comprehensive sexual health education within the school curriculum (71.1%).

Of particular concern is the sentiment among 77.8% of participants who believe that the local education system will worsen over the next 5 years.

Moreover, they feel that the existing education system does not prioritise their personal development (58.8%) and fails to provide sufficient time to devote to extracurricular activities (59.9%).

You may access the official FutureHour report by clicking here, which encompasses accurate insight on various areas including Education, Employment, Environment & more among youths in Malta.

With all the above in mind, let’s see how the 50 students performed in our social experiment.

Social Experiment Results

The test results indicate varying performance levels across different subject areas, with notable observations to be made in each discipline.

English achieved an average score of 50%, reflecting a relatively satisfactory performance by students. When it came to conjugating verbs, however, only 3 students gave correct responses, suggesting plenty room for improvement here.

In Mathematics, the average score was 30.5%. A significant number of students, specifically 37 out of the total, did not meet the pass mark, and 7 students answered absolutely none of the questions correctly. Challenging areas for students included fractions, rounding, angles, and notably, understanding concepts related to money.

The Maltese section yielded an average score of 24%. Out of the 50 students, 36 failed to meet the pass mark, with 12 students achieving less than 10 marks in total. When it comes to Maltese Literature specifically, only 2 students demonstrated accurate understanding and provided correct answers.

In Science, the average score matched that of English at 50%. However, less than a third of the students knew how to wire a household plug, and only 7 students could outline the benefits of using an electric vehicle.

General Knowledge exhibited an average score of 32.5%. A significant majority of students struggled in this area, with only 8 students successfully passing.

Students displayed a noticeable lack of health and safety knowledge, particularly in relation to CPR techniques, fire safety protocols, legal limits for driving after consuming alcohol, and safe food handling practices. Moreover, a substantial number of students, 34 in total, demonstrated a very limited understanding of the Maltese election system.

It's worth noting that the General Knowledge questions were formulated based on Maltese Health & Safety Guidelines.

These results highlight the importance of addressing gaps in students' knowledge and emphasising the significance of comprehensive education encompassing both subject-specific skills and general awareness.

Social Experiment Conclusions

A total of 12 from 50 students successfully 'passed' the social experiment, resulting in an overall average score of 40%. Notably, the highest individual score achieved was 76%.

We also conducted an analysis of the participants' ages and their corresponding performance. The findings here revealed a concerning trend: with each passing year, students appeared to lose approximately 10% of the knowledge acquired during their schooling. Furthermore, students who were preparing to take their actual O-Level examinations (which were commencing a month from the date of our social experiment) demonstrated the poorest performance among all age groups.

Moreover, in assessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students' education, we found that those who experienced schooling during this period displayed a significant decline in test scores, with an average decrease of 50% compared to the preceding years.

Where Do We Go From Here? The Path Towards School Version 2.0.

This social experiment should be regarded as a limited study, lacking scientific empiricism, and its findings cannot be extrapolated to a national scale. However, it does offer indications that students may struggle to retain the knowledge they acquired for their O-level examinations.

Our intention was not to downplay the significance of education, as it remains a fundamental pillar in the holistic development of youths. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that nearly all participating students failed our experiment.

Determining accountability in this context is a complex matter. Are the students at fault for not preparing enough? Are the MATSEC questions excessively difficult? Or does the education system itself bear responsibility for prioritising mechanical memorisation of information that is quickly forgotten?

It is crucial to critically examine the structure and nature of our education system. Presently, it appears that the system fails to adequately cater to the needs of today's youth, consequently affecting the future society as well. It adheres to outdated syllabi that students promptly forget, particularly how rapidly modern technology is being integrated into day to day life.

Additionally, it attempts to fit all students, including those with creative and divergent thinking abilities, into a singular standardised education model that inherently fails to accommodate their unique qualities.

Therefore, it is crucial to look at the future and consider alternative approaches. Students should not be reduced to mere test scores; they have distinctive qualities, endless creativity, and tremendous potential.

While education is undeniably valuable, it is worth recognising that School Version 1.0 was introduced about 180 years ago. Perhaps it's time to consider that we need an update and evolution in our educational practices.

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid" - Albert Einstein

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