The Exam Question — My Thoughts

An article titled ‘The Exam Question’ was published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 9, 2016. It was timely as the end of the first semester approached.  Many memories and thoughts came up for me as I read the article.  This piece is my response to it.

When I was in high school, I wrote 7 to 8 exams twice a year. In grades 9 and 10, the exams were 2 hours long and in grades 11 to 13, 3 hours long. My sisters had to write the provincial departmental exams at the end of grade 13.  They wrote several 3 hour exams which were set by the Ministry of Education in Toronto and which were shipped to Toronto where teachers marked them using a prescribed marking scheme.  I did not have to write the provincial departmental exams which had been done away with two years before I completed grade 13.

When I was in high school, I also had to write standardized tests in grades 12 and 13. In grade 12, it was SATO – the Scholastic Aptitude Test of Ontario.  In grade 13, I wrote OSAT – the Ontario Scholastic Aptitude Test, OECAT – the Ontario English Comprehension Aptitude Test, and OMAT – the Ontario Mathematics Aptitude Test.  The results of these tests were an important part of my applications to universities.

When I completed my pre-service training to become a teacher, I took several courses on assessment and evaluation. The emphasis was on statistics and reliability and validity.  There was much time spent on crafting multiple choice and true/false questions.  There was little discussion of how to craft or mark other kinds of exam questions, especially essay style questions.  Over my 33 year career as a classroom teacher, I created and marked exams in Music, English, Learning Strategies, and Peer Tutoring.  As well, I had experience in several capacities scoring the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test.

Based upon my experience of exams as a student and as an educator, I have several thoughts regarding the issue of summative written assessment that I offer for others to consider.

Final summative exams are a well tried method of assessing student acquisition of the knowledge for a course. For schools, exams are easily managed.  An exam schedule is set of dates on which each exam will be written, rooms are assigned, and specific supports are put in place for those students who will need them e.g. use of a computer or a scribe or extra time or a separate space.  Teachers often have a bank of exam questions from which they can draw.  They can reference exams from previous years as they draft the exams for the courses which they teach.  Teachers create their course exams and mark them using the marking scheme they have developed.  Then each student’s final course grade is calculated by factoring in the final exam mark with the student’s term mark. For most courses, the final exam mark is worth between 30 and 40% of the final grade which the student achieves.

Since each student in a subject writes a final examination which is evaluated using an accepted marking scheme, summative exams offer the opportunity to collect data, and statistics on the reliability and validity of some test items. Many universities accept admission grades more readily when they are derived in large part from final exams.

All that being acknowledged, there are issues which render this type of summative assessment problematic.

Consider the following:

  • Pen and ink exams privilege visual learners – those whose preferred learning style involves taking notes, studying from these notes, reading exam questions and then generating a response using standard linguistic or mathematical forms.

However, it has been my experience that many students, especially those who are identified as having a learning exceptionality, are mainly auditory or kinaesthetic learners. The standard format of a final written exam does not provide them with opportunities to use their preferred learning style to demonstrate what they know and to answer questions.

  • Pen and ink exams privilege those whose strengths are logical-mathematical or linguistic intelligence since exam questions require students to read and understand the language of the questions and then generate answers using standard linguistic or mathematical forms to demonstrate what they know.

However, this flies in the face of Multiple Intelligence Theory which posits that while we all have strength in one main type of intelligence, there are other types of intelligence which we also use as we negotiate the demands of our world. Final written summative assessments do not provide students whose strengths are in one of the seven other intelligences which Howard Gardner identified [] with opportunities to use these strengths to demonstrate what they know.

  • While it is true that written exams require that students learn how to manage time so that the exam can be completed within the prescribed length of time, and that students need to develop organizational skills and work and study habits so that they can use their time effectively in preparing for written exams, these skills can be developed on an on-going basis through daily class work, in class learning, and student completion of term assignments by firm set deadlines.

It is these habits developed over the full length of a course that will stand students in good stead when they go on to post-secondary education or out into the work world. They will have developed the habits of mind needed to negotiate the world beyond high school.

  • The argument is made that completing final summative written assessments [exams] helps students learn to deal with high pressure situations and that the only sure way for students to overcome exam-day stress is preparation. If the student feels well prepared, then that student will not be hampered by exam-day nerves. From my experience watching one of my sisters struggle to deal with exam writing nerves and from my experience as a classroom teacher in several different subjects, I believe that students might have studied and prepared fully to write exams and still fall victim to exam ‘flop sweat’.   They can still look at the page and their mind goes blank. And this stress is only exacerbated when a large percentage of their final grade depends on exam results.

There are other ways to help students develop strategies to deal with such pressure situations. These strategies can be taught through teaching them learning strategies over the course of a term.  Work and study habits which include time management, and test taking skills need to be developed over time.

  • Students memorize information for exams and are not always challenged to take what they know and apply it to new situations. Further, in crafting on-going assessment of term assignments, teachers are expected to assess: knowledge – what you know, comprehension – understanding what you know, application – applying that knowledge, and synthesis – adaptation of that knowledge in order to create something new. Multiple choice or True/False questions which are often part of final exams mainly assess knowledge. Essay style questions mainly assess knowledge, comprehension, and sometimes application.  However, synthesis requires students to create something new derived from already held knowledge which might be drawn from many subject areas. Assessing synthesis very rarely occurs in final summative written  assessments.
  • When students are required to complete final written exams which are worth a major percentage of their final grade, there is a risk for teachers to cover only the course material which will be required for the final exam. Essentially, they teach to the test and cover that they think will be on the exam.

This has affected preparing students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. Teachers often craft final exam questions in similar formats to those their students will encounter on the OSSLT even if those types of questions are not the best way to assess student knowledge in that subject.

Teaching to the test and thus covering very little else was a problem with the provincial departmental exams where teachers had to ensure that their students had the prerequisite information needed to pass the exam. When I was in grade 12, several questions on one of my Chemistry exams had to be removed from the calculation of our final grade since students in one of the other 3 classes had not covered that material.

  • Cultural bias is a problem with final summative written assessments. The language of questions quite often requires that students have prior knowledge of the subject and even of the meaning of words used in the questions which they must answer.  My strongest recollection of this came when I was scoring the Information Paragraph which used to be part of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. The subject was the Northern Lights. Students were required to combine a minimum of 6 of the given information bullets into a single paragraph which focused on one aspect of this natural phenomenon. Many students who were new to Canada tried to make sense of the subject – one for which they had no experience nor had it been covered in any course material for any subject which they had studied in school. Because they lacked the required subject and cultural background, they found the required task very difficult to complete.
  • Pen and ink exams are anachronistic. Our world of on-line discovery requires the use of artificial intelligence as the route of delivery of a great deal of information. Students have access to internet and computers and iPads and the like. They are encouraged to submit computer generated written assignments.

The question, then, is why is pen and ink summative assessment the delivery mechanism required for students to demonstrate what they know? Students rarely have access to computers as they complete exams. As well, they are not taught handwriting as I was.  Nor do they have opportunities for consecutive practice to develop the muscle memory necessary to deal with the physical demands of writing for an extended length of time.  It can be a challenge for teachers to decipher pen and ink written work.  In marking hand-written English assignments and in scoring written work on the OSSLT, there were times when I was not sure what the student had written because I had difficulty reading their hand writing.

  • Nowhere in the work world is it required that intensive exams be taken except for some specific careers where exams are used to acquire further accreditation. Consider that comprehensive exams for graduate degrees are application and synthesis focused and are usually completed on student’s time and after research and in the form of orals or written papers. Post-secondary comprehensive exams are rarely if ever completed in a one-sitting written exam session.

While students do need to write essays and dissertations and put their thinking in writing, final summative written assessments are not the only way to ensure that students demonstrate those skills. Research assignments and Independent Studies are also methods which can be used to hone student ability to research, draft and create written work.

The final summative written assessments as they now exist are external assessment tools which do not provide students with an opportunity to authentically gauge for themselves just how much they know.

.  .  .

There are many people – educators and parents and even students who believe that exam marks indicate student success. The higher the mark on the exam, the more successful the student is.  For me, this begs the question: What does success in learning look like?  Is it a function of a high final grade?  Is it a function of students’ ability to be given a problem or something to explore and then consider the task, break it down, decide what they know and what they need to find out, complete research to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and then create a response to the task?  That response might be a report or essay or it might be the creation of a performance work appropriate to the subject being explored.

In this quantum age in which we live, we need to decide what is important for our children – marks or cognitive ability? We need to ask ourselves if final summative written assessments [exams] are the best way to evaluate student learning.  Are they the best way to prepare our students for the demands of the 21st century?





About Authentic Vibrations

My life is about learning and personal growth. I was an educator in the public secondary system for over 33 years. I now work with women, individually and in small groups, using words and music, art and language to help them explore their individaul sense of self in ways with are authentically meaningful for each of them. I also facilitate discussions with educators at all stages of their involvement in the teaching profession to help each of us explore the meaning, value and potential of learning and teaching. It is my belief that, in working individually and in collective, we have the power to transform and evolve. In the power of the collectives which we create together is the power to create culture. As a musician, I believe that the arts have the power to change lives. Certification: CODE Model™ Coach WEL-Systems® Institute Affiliate Education: Ed. D (c) (Applied Psychology – Focus on Teaching) University of Toronto M. Ed (Curriculum Development and Design) Queen’s University (1992) B. Ed (Music, English, Elementary Education) University of Toronto (1976) Mus. Bac. (Music Education) University of Toronto (1975) RCM Grade 4 Harmony, Grade 4 History, Grade 9 Voice, Grade 10 Piano Awards: Life Membership, Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (2009)
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One Response to The Exam Question — My Thoughts

  1. Pingback: The Exam Question — My Thoughts | Engage WEL-Systems

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