Do Exams Truly Measure Someone’s Intelligence?

Is the examination system really worth the stress?

The concept of formal examination emerged in 605 A.D, China, introduced by the Sui Dynasty to elect candidates for civil service and government offices. However, it is interesting to note that intelligence existed, and could be measured accurately even before this particular development. Some even might go as far as to say that it was found in significant abundance before we invented an examination system!

Take the greatest philosophical and scientific advancements in all academia; all of these can be attributed to individuals who wanted to gain knowledge out of pure curiosity. Be it Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or Avicenna, Averroes, Pythagoras and, Archimedes – these thinkers contributed to the fundamentals of their respective fields and did so without taking any formal examination.

Probably because all of their learning was unhindered unlike the pressure looming over the students of today to achieve high grades in exams that seldom have anything to do with learning or creativity.

In this author’s opinion, all forms of written and verbal examination should be abolished as they play no role in determining or advancing either IQ or intelligence of an individual.  Before establishing why the examination system is flawed, we first must attempt to define intelligence.

Intelligence refers to the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills and to use these acquired skills to function effectively within a given environment (Cardwell).

Researchers have spent decades trying to come up with a system to accurately and objectively measure the intelligence of an individual but a breakthrough is yet to be established.

In 1905, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon developed the first intelligence test which was known as the Binet-Simon scale – this questionnaire tested memory, attention, strategic thinking on a spectrum and attempted to assign a fixed value to intellectual ability. However, the current examination system only tests the ability of an individual within a fixed range and lacks the flexibility that is conducive to creativity. For example, exams test memory and retention of content taught within a classroom rather than the understanding of these concepts. Therefore, an average exam tests the effort made by the student rather than determining their intelligence.

Grades do not quantify intellectual ability but rather assign a numerical quotient to a student’s effort in a particular subject. While hard work is characteristic of successful people, it does not in any way constitute intelligence. Many intelligent individuals in history have been known for their tendency to procrastinate which stems from their complex to be perfect.

Furthermore, as exams simply serve to measure retentive abilities of an individual, it should be noted that the content learned for an exam becomes useless and is lost from the mind as soon as the exam ends. Were high-scoring students tested for the same exam a month later, they would fail as no real knowledge is being gained. Instead, students succumb to pressure and rote-learn material without pondering over the possible implications and applications of what they are cramming. This is depriving the global economy of creative, motivated and skilled human capital which will lead to a collective intellectual collapse of society.

 Besides the fact that exams are useless when it comes to determining or improving intelligence, it should be emphasized that the meaningless competition is driving many students to suicide. The stress caused by exams can lead to the development of mental health issues in adolescents and adults alike – parental pressure coupled with the expectations of teachers and peers means that many students undergo depression, panic attacks and may experience psychosomatic symptoms like palpitations, increased heartbeat, sweating and tremors etc. before and during an exam. Such extended suffering can be avoided if exams were abolished which would lead to students embracing the opportunity to learn and evolve without the omnipresent stress of an exam hanging over their head.

Exams fail to measure divergent thinking and creativity which are essential constituents of intelligence. Let us take student X who is fluidly intelligent and has recently taken an exam that measured his ability to write about fixed facts and percepts. Let us also assume that X scored a C-minus on this test. Without encouragement and motivation, X will come to think of himself as stupid which as we have already established, could not be further from the truth. Thus, X spends his whole life under a false impression of his own self simply because of the inherent flaws in standardized examinations.

The purpose of education is not to morph students into grade-making machines but rather to advance creativity, intellect and, curiosity; three traits present in all highly-intellectual individuals. The examination system merely hinders such progress and instead labels students in the classroom preventing intellectual growth. Instead of standardized examination, extensive class activity and regular assignments should be given that provide room for creativity and knowledge application. This will not only create a more enhanced, interdependent learning environment but will also relieve the students of any pressure, thereby allowing them to experience the world through more than just textbooks.

The conclusion? The examination system should be abolished as it cannot objectively quantify intellect and instead demotivates individuals. To quote Albert Einstein: “…if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As a student, the only thing you should be worried about is all the new things that you will learn the next day which might challenge your paradigms. Nothing else!

It is high time that we show empathy towards students and help them grow into better, motivated and intelligent individuals without the threat of exams looming over them, depriving them of a real chance at learning!


Cardwell, M. (2003). Complete A-Z Psychology Handbook. Third Edition. Hodder & Stoughton.

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