Saturday, April 4, 2015

On Final Exams

A recent article in the National Post suggests that exams are passé.  Joseph Brean writes,
Psychologists have a quip about IQ tests — the only thing they measure is your ability to do IQ tests. They are not, as they purport to be, an objective measure of intelligence, like the air temperature of a room. Rather, they are variable, and vulnerable to luck and circumstance, like the score of a hockey game. Exams are the same. They are cruel in their way, in their pose as objective measures of a student’s worth.
The article suggests that since exams are stressful, then they should be abolished because, "high-stress exams give a false picture of a student’s abilities."

Exams can certainly be stressful, and as a lazy student with a weak memory for details, I often watched them lower my grades.  But I disagree with Brean's claim that exams are as useless as IQ tests.  (Although the equally stressful EQAO is a different matter entirely.)

We show what we know when we can remember information when prompted.  Writing essays and doing projects display communication skills and an understanding of concepts, but, without committing the content to memory, I'm not convinced we can say we've learned it.  If you can't tell me anything about WWI - when it happened, who was involved, worldwide implications... - without looking at your notes, then you don't know anything about it.  Then when you watch Downton Abbey, and a date flashes on the screen, "June 1914," you have to look it up to grasp the significance.  It's useful to know things, and it's useful to our society if everyone has a common knowledge of basic facts about history, geography, multiplication tables, the carbon cycle...  Without a display of memory, we can't assess learning.  And a good test or exam can be a clear indicator of knowledge.

So why not just have tests without a final exam?  The nice thing about exams is that kids do them.  They don't whine or try to bargain or chat or even think of taking out their phones during exams.  Because exams are held up to a higher standard, and the whole school stops for a week for them to happen, and the kids only get one kick at the cat, students take exams more seriously than tests. I've had in-class tests with a third of the class AWOL then had to spend days tracking them and getting them to write a make-up. I once had a student take a make-up test home for three days to write it, and I was instructed that I had to count it because he showed he knew the content - ignoring the obvious fact that he had ample opportunity to google the material.  For exams, they all show up and do the work.  Period.

Because they take them seriously, kids push themselves more than throughout the term.  As Ken Coates said in the article, "People have forgotten at great detriment that the writing of a test is a valuable skill in its own right."  It forces students to review material from the entire course repeatedly, which can help it to stick. However, I could get behind allowing exemptions for exams.  If we set a high standard for term work, maybe 80%, that gets students out of writing the exam, then they might be more motivated to do excellent work throughout the term instead of saving themselves for the final.

Yes, stress is a concern.  If a student chokes, it shouldn't destroy the grade. Now we break the 30% final evaluation into a few pieces near the end of term.  I can have an open-book portion for an essay where they can look up any details they need, and a closed-book portion for content.  That helps avoid one bad day harming the mark too much.  We can also choose to ignore a significantly inconsistent mark.

All the same, stress also gets a bad rap.  The article quotes a neuroscientist who studies cognitive performance under pressure: Sian Beilock says,
There is a time and a place for diagnostics, but a sole reliance on them does not seem wise to me...[Stressful exams] rob us of our limited ability to pay attention to what we need to.... [The worries] soak up the resources that we could be using to focus on a test.  
The article goes on to say Beilock, "advocates a technique of 'reappraising arousal' in the context of examination, to think of stressful feelings as part of success, rather than failure....students should still be tested, but must also learn to 'effectively and efficiently cope with stress and then recover from that effort.'"  We get an adrenaline rush when we're stressed or excited or upset.  If we're anxious, but convince ourselves that we're actually excited, it can help alleviate the stress.

Clearly we shouldn't just rely on exams as a sole measure of ability, but they can still be one measure that we incorporate into a bank of data. But even more important, perhaps, is that we need some stress to motivate us to do things that are difficult or not entertaining to us. We don't want so much that it makes students sick or drives them (or their parents) to cheat, though, so students need to learn the skill of talking themselves through the anxiety, which is a skill that I've used countless times in other aspects of my life since learning it in university.  Without a chance for kids to experience difficulty, we're robbing them of a chance to learn how to cope with the difficulty.

When I first started teaching, I was part of a Special Education Department that took time out of English classes each term to give pointers on mnemonics and coping with stress during exams. We're at a point where, when we see an obstacle, we want to abolish it rather than work through it.  If a student struggles to write quickly, s/he's given extra time.  If someone finds presentations stressful, s/he's allowed to present just to the teacher.  And now exams are stressing people out, so we look towards getting rid of them.  But we could do so much more for people if we helped them struggle to write faster, or struggle to talk with an audience, or struggle to cope with stress.

But I believe the real stressor here isn't the exam itself.  We've had exams for years without people so affected by them.  The real stressor is the need for a competitive edge in our society because there's a dearth of opportunities. Without the jobs that have been lost to outsourcing or technological advances, students and parents have become obsessed with marks.  Marks lead to a good school which hopefully leads to one of a dwindling supply of jobs which leads to basic survival.  So exam marks have become a matter of life and death.

Finally, Brean's suggestion that exams are cruel and "pose as objective measures of a student's worth" is a different problem.  Grades in school should in no way be a marker of anybody's value as a human being. But I think it's our culture that present that perspective, not the exams themselves.  Exams are merely an indication of what people know at a given time.  They can give us a sense of what we're good at, what we might want to pursue in life, and what we need to work at further if we really want the knowledge on offer.  

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