Exams: What to do when there is one size to fit all?


Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Albert Einstein


The above cartoon was sent to me by a student to explain how she felt about exams.  She told me that she felt like the fish.  Although, she knew the content area and performed well in more process type components, when it came to sitting down with an exam paper, the exam made no sense.  This student was the top of the class.  She knew the content, could think critically, creatively and understood the subject in depth, but faced with the exam she couldn’t get the results she deserved.


Over lunch I discussed this problem with a friend of mine who is very highly placed in the world of assessment.  I wondered out loud why it was with all the movement forward in student centered learning, catering for different learner needs and even theories such as multiple intelligences, English language examinations are generally narrow and do not reflect many of the practices that occur in classrooms.  All my friend could do was nod and say that I was right.


Examinations will not change over night, so based on work I have been doing with students who struggle with exams here are a few suggestions:


1- Explain how the exam works in detail and how the examiner thinks:  This is essential for any student who is a non-linear thinker.  They often can interpret a question in multiple ways which means that they cannot find the right answer.  However, if they understand the logic behind the exam they can select which answer the examiner is looking for.


2- Exam practice:  Applying the knowledge from point one above means the student needs to be able to practice the exam.  Afterwards they will need to discuss each answer in depth to further understand the logic behind the question.


3- For kinesthetic learners or those with musical intelligence (i.e. they need movement/ rhythm / noise) a 2 – 3 hour examination in silence will work against them.  A way to help these students is teaching them how to chew gum quietly in the exam.  This helps reduce stress, gives them some movement and helps with concentration.  For the benefits of gum read this article.


4- Build your learners’ confidence:  For many learners who know they know the answers but can’t get the results in exams their confidence has been severely bruised and battered.  For some it leads to an absolute crisis where they begin to freeze in examinations or stop turning up all together.  These fears and frustrations need to be worked through and faced head on, as they often hinder the learner from being able to even study for courses, where they know there is an exam at the end.  Talking and having a safe place to experiment can really help these learners to achieve in the system.


There are interesting projects involving computers generating material based on learner preferences, but for the short-term some learners need to be scaffolded in a one size fits all system.


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