Revising a third of my course wasn’t exactly how I was planning to spend my summer, but unfortunately that’s what happens when you don’t meet the pass mark. This seems perfectly fair, unless (as is the case for me) you’re being made to revise because you missed the pass mark by 1%.
Obviously, the pass mark is there for a reason. One might argue that it is somewhat arbitrary, but at the end of the day the Oxford University Medical School is training the future doctors of the NHS. Unlike in other subjects, where the content taught may be less relevant to a future career, it’s really rather important that we know the bones of the skeleton, for example, or the basic science behind breathing and gas exchange. For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with the way in which medical students are examined, we have two types of exam: written and multiple choice. If you don’t score highly enough on the written exams, you’re called in for a Viva Voce examination. The point of these oral exams is to make sure you know the topic(s) you didn’t score highly on sufficiently, without making you resit the entire paper. This is useful because in many cases students make one or two small yet significant errors which sabotage their performance, and there are only a few topics that need retesting.
I believe I can confidently speak on behalf of the entire student body when I say that Vivas, as they’re known colloquially, can be a godsend. So long as you pass, they can save weeks (if not months) of revision and stress during a period otherwise intended for relaxation and recuperation. With this in mind, it would make sense to also arrange Vivas for those who didn’t quite do well enough in the multiple choice papers (as I understand it, this was the case until 4 years ago). Of course it would be more time consuming, as each exam covers 20 topics as opposed to 3 in their written counterparts, but one would think that the Viva Voce examiners would only need to assess the very lowest-scoring topics in order to confirm that the student in question had a reasonable knowledge of their course. Furthermore, Vivas would only be necessary for those students near the pass/fail border, which past examiners’ reports indicate would be a rather small number.
I’m not suggesting the pass marks ought to be lowered (this year’s was 69%), but resits ought to be a last resort. No one wants a doctor who scraped 40% in their first year exams, but time is a precious resource, and the time of those who just failed to reach the bar set for them shouldn’t be wasted re-memorising information that won’t be relevant for years to come.
Failing an exam is one thing, but realising you’ve failed by one mark is infuriating beyond words – especially when that one mark results in the loss of two thirds of your summer. While Oxford may be ranked the best university in the world for medicine, the department certainly isn’t infallible. We only need to look at the recent breach of the General Data Protection Regulation that the department experienced, which resulted in a list of the full names of the candidates called for vivas being sent to the entirety of the first year cohort to see that blunders are most definitely made. As with any organisation, they’re capable of making mistakes, and I believe the removal of Vivas for multiple choice exams is one of them – one that cuts deep for those of us who were a hair’s breadth away from success.