If the answer is instant, the question is pointless

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
With the testing season here again, I am reminded of something that bothers me whenever I have to invigilate the start of a public exam
With the testing season here again, I am reminded of something that bothers me whenever I have to invigilate the start of a public exam. It doesn't matter what the subject or level is: after the tedious preliminaries that end with "You may begin", the same thing always happens: students open their papers and start writing. After about 10 seconds, most have turned to page two. Are they rushing and panicking? Perhaps some are, but not all.

My problem is: what can these questions be like if they can be completed with so little consideration? Any question that can be answered so instantaneously is not worth asking.

This is mere recall - simply a knee-jerk response. We are not probing real thinking with such questions. This is why exam booklets have grown so large. To occupy candidates for an hour or two with this sort of material, examiners have to get busy producing pages and pages of little questions. In many subjects, it seems that when the candidates hand in their scripts, many of the words in the booklets were there already, and students have been mostly filling in the gaps. (The more printed content, the more potential for errors; hence the embarrassingly large number of errata that sometimes need to be read out at the start.)

This year, a few high-flying sixth-form students at our school sat the British Mathematical Olympiad paper - a demanding three-and-a-half-hour exam requiring full written solutions to very challenging problems.

A colleague who had been invigilating part of this exam was consequently a few minutes late to her Year 9 class. She explained on her arrival that she had been with some sixth-formers who were doing a three-and-a-half-hour maths exam. The pupils were astounded that such a thing was possible, but their amazement was mainly at how unimaginably thick must be a paper that could occupy such clever people for so long. In fact, the entire exam consists of six questions, typed on one side of a piece of A5 paper.

We need to get back to exam styles that allow pupils time to think about questions that are worth thinking about. Teachers know that quick-fire question-and-answer sessions in class are limited in what they can achieve. The same is true in the exam room. Short, closed questions are easy to ask, answer, and - crucially - mark. But do we want to turn out young people who can deal with only one thought at a time, and are never pushed to think about anything for more than a few seconds?

The exam paper keeps up a constant stream of gabble, with the poor candidate having to fight for a chance to get a word in edgeways and show what they understand and can do. A better system would create space to let candidates express themselves, and would give the examiner far more useful data with which to judge their capability.

Colin Foster, Maths teacher at King Henry VIII School in Coventry.

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