Sunday, June 7, 2015

Are Exams Useful?

Solo exam
Solo Exam By: Xavi
Last week our district had Damian Cooper in to talk about assessment. The plan is to have two more follow-up sessions in the fall. I did not attend the session, but have talked to a number of people about it. The one thing I heard over and over again was that there were lots of big ideas but hopefully in future sessions he will provide some more concrete details about implementing his ideas.

I think for those that are interested in what Mr. Cooper said, there's no reason why the conversations about assessment can't start now. I had one such conversation with a colleague the other day. He told me that as he started to put his exams together he wondered "Why?". His point was that if students had already been assessed on certain expectations, what was the point of assessing them again on the same topics. I thought this was a valid point. We discussed it for a short period between classes but I think it's a discussion that could have gone on.

What more can you learn about a student's learning in an hour and a half to two hour exam? One of the options we discussed is the possibility of having targeted exams so that students could show you that they have improved on a topic that they didn't master in the term. This could be as complicated as individualized exams (which would be a lot of work for the teacher) or as simple as giving everyone the same exam and giving each student a list of questions that they must complete on that exam. The goal would be for students to show the teacher that they have gained the understanding that they lacked earlier in the semester. If you decided to go this route you'd have to be a little careful with the weighting. In Ontario 70% of a student's grade is to come from their term work while the remaining 30% comes from a combination of exam and/or summative activity. You wouldn't want 30% of a student's mark to be determined by questions that they struggled with early on. But with a little tweaking I think this could be an effective approach.

Another option we discussed was to make the 'exam' a reflection for the student. It might be a written exam or perhaps in the form of an interview as described here by Alex Overvijk.  A reflection might involve questions such as: What was the most useful topic we covered? What was the most difficult? How do you see using any of the ideas from the course beyond the course? I'm sure there are a lot more, many that would be much better than these but the idea would be to get students thinking and reflecting about their learning.

One final option that we discussed (I'm sure there are many others) was moving away from an exam to a culminating activity that ties together multiple (perhaps all?) strands from a course. This could allow for some creativity and eliminate the time crunch of an exam. It could give the teacher a sense of how much students have grown over the course.

Up until a week ago I thought that exams were crucial but as I've thought and talked about it over the course of the week I think I would be comfortable without one. Here are some of the concerns that I've heard about eliminating exams and my questions about those concerns.

  1. Students need to know how to write exams for post-secondary. This may be true but do we need to subject all students to exams. I know that many college courses don't have exams and it appears that some universities are giving far fewer exams. At my school fewer than 20% of students go off to university. Does it make sense to subject every student to learning how to write exams when so few of them actually will? Perhaps exams could be part of the courses for university bound students.
  2. Exams provide a check to see if students still know the material or to make sure they really understand it. If a student was able to cram for a test without really knowing what was going on, isn't it possible they could do the same for an exam? How much of the material from an exam is retained by students a month after the fact? 
What are your thoughts about final exams? Are they necessary? Should we be eliminating them? Or should we be looking for a more effective model for exams?


  1. Hi Dave
    I am not a huge fan of exams either - feels like its one more thing we do that kills the enjoyment of learning.
    i did like the exemption policy we had in place for a brief time in CWS - 80% or higher in course , no need to write exam. for those on the cusp of 75-80 it encouraged them to reach higher.
    i try to make my exams more performance oriented when possible, but i know in some classes that would be more challenging.
    i think we need to stop trying to prepare kids for 'the real world' this is the real world, this is high school - it isn't a job, it's not a university or college - if a person messes up in the real world they have real consequences - so they are motivated to avoid messing up, but here, at school, this is not the real world. in no job could i tell me boss off, then still be back at work the next day without some serious grovelling, at no institution of higher learning could i plagiarize, or hand something in 2 months late and still pass. I feel that the idea of preparing for real world is hypocritical - this is high school, teens are not adults, their brains are not like adult brains, and they are not driven by the same things that drive adults. If we do not have real consequences in place at school (fire, pay docked, disciplinary committee, harassment course, etc.) we need to stop expecting students to take high school as seriously as they would the real world.
    Students live in their real world, often very different from our real world, our the world of our youth - for us to expect them to act like adults is insane. we are doing a disservice to our students and our profession and our education system if we expect what is not possible for most.
    Teens need caring adults, not more stress, and they need support, but also the opportunity to fail and learn from mistakes. There should be consequences but they won;t be real world, because they can't be.
    Hope that makes sense
    tired brain today


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