Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Thinking about exams.

Real Teaching Means Real Learning wants to
Re-evaluate exam week
, something that he feels he hasn't thought about deeply enough. After he bemoans the fact that students aren't collaborating on these exams, he throws up a couple of strawman arguments and takes some huge liberties with student motivation.

"If a kid can fail the exam and still pass, should he take the exam?" Apparently not, which seems like a crazy idea to me. It's been my experience that kids often don't put their knowledge all together in one coherent package until they sit for the exam. "I don't know what I am doing" becomes "Oh, that was easier than I thought. Now I get it." Additionally, how many kids want to only get a 60% passing grade if they could get a 80% ?

Further, he seems astonished that a kid with an average of 28% can't pass the class and is required to sit the exam anyway. I look at it this way: most kids who have a mark in the twenties are sabotaging themselves; they're rarely stupid. If they take the exam and score well, they have that to build from the next time they take the course - not everyone can do it in the same allotted time.

You can even make the case that scoring well on the exam is the ONLY criteria for passing a course -- if the exam is comprehensive. It takes a fairly complete knowledge to bring together all of that knowledge in one place, for one exam, during two hours.

I have never used one.
Seems like more trouble than it's worth.
Up pops strawman #2. "As most exams are multiple choice" the student can guess and get a 25%. It's been a while since I gave a MC exam. Tests and quizzes? Yes, there's almost always a MC section. Final exam? No.

RTMRL wants to take some of the kids out of exams and give them intensive one-on-one tutoring instead. He's ignoring the reality that they weren't working for the previous six months; expecting them to suddenly catch up on all of that during the time the rest are taking exams is a little foolish.

"Do we take these students, who are obviously struggling with the course, and test them again or do we teach them? Imagine the learning which could occur with 1-1 help in a 3 hour block with a weak student?" Um, probably not much.

Up pops strawman #3, "If the answer is the latter, then I suggest you be upfront with your stakeholders and put a sign outside your school saying “For an entire month, two weeks during each semester, your child will not learn at this school”.

He is pretending that the kids are losing 2 weeks at a time for exams. I have been working in education, public and private, for nearly 30 years. Not one school has ever taken this much time for exams. Not only that, there is the idea that learning can't happen at exam time.

Enough of that. Are exams worth it? I feel they are, for all students.

It is a summary evaluation. For the entire course, we've broken things down and scaffolded them up. We've looked at pieces of the course in isolation. Projects have been deliberately limited in scope and the students are analyzing and committing to long-term memory the nuts and bolts as well as the grand themes.

The final exam is the time when you can make problems that bring the whole course together, when the student needs to demonstrate ability and knowledge of a whole vast subject, when the notebook is useless and memory is critical, when a single question requires a deep understanding of parts of 10 or more months of work.

Some kids crash and burn and still learn that lesson, and come out of the fire tested and ready to do better the next time. Some students realize how much they really do know (and surprise the hell out of themselves). The rest consolidate their knowledge and prove to themselves how much they understand -- or don't.

You can't fake that.

1 comment:

  1. I make every single student take my final exam despite my school's exemption rules. That's because I think they need the experience of taking a final. Not a year goes by where there's some story about a kid who managed to get out of all of his exams during high school then hit college and was shocked (SHOCKED!) to learn that he had to take his final.

    That being said, I'm constantly reworking my final exams to make sure they are the best possible measurement for my students. I figure I owe them that much.

    Great post.