Thursday, June 30, 2011

Exam time

I’m sitting down to write this blog with a sigh of relief.  I’m deserting the large majority of 150 first year examination scripts that demand marking.  I’ve already gone through enough to have seen the highlights and lowlights and to have discovered that there are ways of getting the questions wrong that I hadn’t dreamed of when I set the paper.  But overall the students are doing pretty well.  In short, all my interest in the process has gone.
I know we have at least one other teacher out there, and everyone who has been a teacher has faced the same state of desperation.  Paper follows paper, nothing new under the sun.  One invents excuses for coffee, to do email, to phone this one or that one, to check the stock market, to write a blog.  Anything but face the remaining hundreds of papers.   And when eventually the excuses are so petty that you can’t abide them any more (I remember emptying the wastepaper baskets on one occasion), you are left with a taste of ashes.  What is it all for?  Does it make any sense to assess a student’s understanding and knowledge of a course on the basis of a one and a half hour examination where much of the result will be determined by memory, repetitive exercises and garbling the text book and the English language? I’m sure that some students are convinced that the staircase marking method is in actual use.  (This is a system where the marker throws the examination scripts down the stairs and awards marks on the basis of how far they travel.)  What other reason can explain a student filling three exam booklets in one and a half hours?
No scripts were hurt in making this picture.
Assessment is divided between summative and formative.  The former should be designed to determine to what extent the student has met the goals of the course. (Unlike in the dark ages where it sometimes seemed that the goal of a course was for the instructor to start at the beginning and to see how far he got, it is universal practice these days to share with the students in advance what you are going to do and what you expect them to do.  While this does reduce the element of surprise, it introduces an element of fairness into an otherwise somewhat random process. But I digress.  Anything to keep away from the marking.)  
Formative assessment is much more interesting.  Here the idea is that the student benefits from the process, seeing his mistakes, correcting her misconceptions. Unfortunately this often just reduces to handing back the marked papers so that the students can complain about their marks.
The sad part is that a lot of very thoughtful people have put a lot of worthwhile time into thinking about these issues.  Multiple choice questions – marked by computer – can be valuable in both types of assessment if properly designed. (Incidentally Stan designed one of the first systems of this type.)  Computers have finite but large (gigabytes and megahertz) of patience.  They are quite willing to keep testing students, giving canned feedback, presenting further questions and so on.  But intuitively we feel that eventually a human has to read the material if deep learning is to be assessed.  Well, maybe not. It turns out that the word structure of the answers can be assessed by computers too if the computers are trained with appropriate model answers.
The question is, is a formal examination the best way to assess students at all?  Look at what we do.  Tell them to swot everything up for a certain specific day, learn as much as possible by heart, and forget it immediately thereafter.  This is just what they are going to do in their future careers, right?  Work in isolation, leave the project unfinished after a set period of time, and do so with no reference to their notes, books, colleagues or the internet.
So why don’t we use other forms of assessment?  Project work, open book examinations, on-going assessment, group work and so on.  Well, it’s hard.  I do that with my fourth year students. They find it demanding.  The open-book or take-home exams are harder (and harder to set and mark), one worries about copying and how to handle it, how to assess the individual contributions within the group.  There are plenty of ways that these issues can be addressed, but it needs time and work and acceptance by all the stakeholders. For 150 freshmen? I don’t know. I can do it, but can they?
Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I have an awful feeling that examinations are the worst form of summative assessment, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. 
Okay, I can’t put it off any longer. 100 papers are queuing for my attention.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Michael, I taught at the secondary school level but there is much the same annoyance about testing and about the entire point of the exercise.

    At one parent/teacher meeting I had parents complaining because their kids had homework; it was my job to teach the material during class time. The subject was history and I did not change any minds when I explained that class time was for discussion of the material read before class.

    At one point, I taught at a private school where religious education as well as secular studies was memorization and recall. The religious material was to be kept for a life time, secular studies for the test. One day, for a test, I told the students to list the 10 most important things they learned in the chapter. They went to the principal who told me that it was unfair to make them repeat material "from out of the air."

    There is one answer from forty years ago that I still remember. It was American history and the students had to write three or four sentence answers to each question. One answer was two words: minimik donald. It took hours for me to figure that one out. The question was about the American revolution and his answer, incorrect under all circumstances, was Benedict Arnold, the American traitor. He had heard the name float by in the class but clearly had not seen it in print on the page of the textbook.

    I can't say that I miss teaching but I do miss the students. High school juniors and seniors can be funny and interesting people.

  2. Michael, my brother a former teacher who now marks a sinecure knows exactly how you feel. He does it every year and experiences the same agonies. Showed him you blog and he knew the feeling all too well. He's read it seven times though now and hasn't done any marking...

  3. I really should have read that response though before hitting post. Zero marks for me...

  4. Michael,

    My recurring nightmare for years was that I had an exam the next morning and wasn't prepared. It was, I believe, my professors' voodoo revenge for all those years that I actually did show up unprepared but somehow survived to do the "blue book dance" yet another day.

    Who had time to study then, what with was so much going on in the world beyond the classroom. Like prospective random couplings and beer.

    Thank God I matured.


  5. Dan, I hope your brother gave me a passing grade (seven times!)

    Jeff, I think random couplings and beer still beat examinations even for mature people. (I am extrapolating though; I can't argue this from personal experience.)


    I love teaching at all levels and enormously enjoy working with senior students. (Almost as much fun as writing with Stan, and the students still have to listen to what I say!) I haven't had the experiences you described, but the whole examination process still seems far removed from what learning should be about.

    I once told my freshman students that the class test would be very similar to the one given the previous year. I put the test AND SOLUTIONS up on the notice board. Then I gave the same test. There was no discernible difference between the results of that test and of the "blind" ones. There's a moral there somewhere...


  6. I like prospective random couplings and beer. One of the best blog ever i seen.I really like it. Thanks for sharing. !!!

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