In trivial pursuit

11th April 2014 at 01:00

Examinations are a rite of passage, but I wonder how often we really think about their value from the students' point of view. I ask this because every year it seems that more teachers, across more disciplines, are choosing to use exams instead of essay questions - as though accumulating facts is more important than understanding.

During my first two years of teaching, I administered objective exams in all my literature classes and subsequently swore I'd never do so again. One, for example, was composed of 70 multiple choice, true or false and matching questions on Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood. I now see how trivial and insulting many of the questions were. Students didn't even need to have read the novel to answer most of them - any one of the numerous study guides then available would have done very nicely. I also realise that the exam encouraged laziness in the students and, I'm embarrassed to say, in myself.

In fact, that was the main reason I chose that test - it was easy to grade. A quick run through the scoring machine and the numerical grade was recorded. There was no human interaction, no connection between my learners and my role as a guide to their insights, understanding and critical thinking. No wonder it provoked such irritation among some of them.

I hadn't even prepared the entire exam myself. Parts of it came ready-made from a testing service whose growth has since become a triumph for the industry and a near-disaster for the students it purportedly serves. In effect I was saying to my class, "I'm relying on others to do my thinking. I don't have time to evaluate your work."

I know that creating meaningful, probing essay questions - and then reading the responses carefully and marking them fairly and accurately - requires time, concentration and effort. But the end result is worth it. Essay questions can be a valid and valuable means of guiding students towards both deep and broad understanding.

I don't teach to the test. Indeed, I write my own tests based on the teaching. This means that a week or so in advance, I reflect on what we've covered so far and find ways to facilitate students' expression of their understanding. There are many ways to use tests well.

Sometimes I like to give to the class 12 essay questions in advance, telling them that three will appear on the final exam. The most valuable stage, I believe, is the period of preparation, and it is heartening (as it was for me as a student) to see how much class members learn through that process. I also like to sprinkle lectures and class discussions with comments such as, "This would be a great question for the next exam." Through this approach, we can make tests a part of the learning process rather than a blunt assessment of it.

If the questions we ask of our students grow out of the discussions they have, the lectures they attend and the reading they undertake, then the tests themselves become additional learning experiences, increasing what students know rather than acting as mere gauges of what they don't.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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