Testing Times


My school is in exam mode this week so now is as good a time as any to share with you some of my feelings about this most ancient, ever-present and unpopular element of education. In fact, now is a particularly excellent time since it will allow me to put off starting the next set of corrections for an hour or two.

Exams are not fun. Actually that’s a candidate for understatement of the year. They are stressful, they treat humans as serialised data, and they are a test of information that many people consider to be irrelevant for their future. They are also a fact of life. Not quite on the same level as ‘death’ and ‘taxes’ but just about as unavoidable. Love them or hate them (and I’ve never met anyone who loves them) they are a significant part of school and they will remain so.

With all this in mind, I tend to take a fairly pragmatic view towards the examination phenomenon. I’m not here to hate them, nor defend them. I’m here to deal with them. Here’s how I do that. Here’s what I say to my students.

Know thy adversary

Want to think nasty thoughts about exams? Consider them an evil that is out to destroy you? Fine, then let’s be clear about what your opponent is. How it ticks. After all it is often in knowing our enemy that we triumph.

Exams aren’t out to trick you, they are out to test you

It comes as a surprise to many students I teach when they hear me say this. The ones that struggle and find tests and assessment in general to be baffling are often wrapped up in all the things that are unknown. They therefore don’t know where to start studying or how to prepare.

There is actually a great deal that is known however, particularly if the exams are externally run. Everyone (and certainly teachers) should be in a position to find out how long the exam takes, the style of questioning, how many parts or sections the exam is in and (usually) the allocation of marks in these different sections. If the examination system has a high degree of integrity, than the precise wording of the exam will be unknown but the nature of the exam will be open and transparent.

Exam questions don’t want answers, they want responses

I expect most people think examinations are a test of knowledge. That’s only partly true really. It is more accurate to say that they are a demonstration of knowledge. Knowing the course content is obviously significant. But if that was all an exam needed to establish they would look very different indeed. You would see an awful lot more True/False, multiple choice, and ‘fill in the missing word’ style questions for a start. On-line testing would be ubiquitous and stocks in surveymonkey would soar.

No, the real test is not in what a student knows but in how the student expresses it. That is why English exams are full of essay topics and not 100 quiz questions. That’s Why Maths and Science exams give more than 1 mark for complex problems and getting the answer wrong isn’t all that disastrous. There’s more marks in the working out than the end result.

Talk the talk

It is important to demonstrate knowledge and it is essential that this is properly expressed. Every subject has its key words, idioms, vernacular, lingo, verbage, jargon, parlance, metalanguage and very often this is the difference between a good response and a great one. In speaking with colleagues whose subject area examinations have a high propensity for short answer style questions, it is inevitably the case that the students who struggle in exams are the ones who answer these sorts of questions as if they were talking to an intelligent but inexpert man in the street. They aren’t. They are writing to an informed assessor. Communicate in their language and they’ll reward you for it.

Exams are a learned skill

There is no such a thing as an innate ability to perform well in an exam. It is undeniable that people are born and raised with varying degrees of intelligence but that doesn’t mean much unless people study. I’ve written before about my belief that anyone can learn anything and this is partly based on the belief that everyone will get better if they genuinely try something, try it again, and then try it again. Exams favour the prepared and that simply means practice. I’m nearly 20 years into this biz and I have never met anyone who waltzed through a course and pulled out an elite mark on the strength of intellect alone.

Why? What’s the point?

As I mentioned earlier, one of the quite reasonable criticisms of most major assessment is that it can carry a great deal of importance when the actual content matter is irrelevant. A hero of mine, Billy Conolly, highlighted this often in his criticisms of his own school experience. My personal favourite is when he denounces his maths studies by saying “Why did I need to learn algebra? I’ve no intention of ever going there!”

There’s a whole host of factors that influence the curriculum content in schools and ‘stuff you should know and find useful’ is only one of them. When it comes to assessment (the pointy end of curriculum) exams highlight Billy’s grievance even more because a poor result insinuates a deficiency of some sort. Either the student is not bright or not trying. It is understandable that Billy (who is nobody’s fool) and others like him find it all rather pointless.

So what is the point of exams? Well, examinations get everyone doing the same thing at the same time under the same conditions. They do this to establish as equitably as possible the ‘best’ and the ‘least best’, and place everyone else somewhere in between. Algebra does this just as well as anything else. They establish a measure, a standard, a rank order. Do I like this? No, for the record, I think it’s a system that lacks a great deal of humanity and completely fails to take into consideration individuality … but that’s just the way life is.

As I said, the only useful thing is to be pragmatic. 

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