The problem with final exams

I hate paper exams. I don’t believe that they adequately assess knowledge nor do they show understanding in a way that is beneficial. They don’t even really represent what it is that we’re trying to teach students to do. I heard it said long ago that the only thing paper exams show is how well a particular student can do on a paper exam. It’s true. Think about it – what do students do before a big IGCSE or AP exam? They cram by reviewing past papers and example questions. It’s quite a ridiculous culture that focuses on examination instead of learning.

Graeme Paton of The Telegraph reports that paper exams should be replaced by online testing in order to get away from ‘Victorian’ methods of examining. Although this would be a big step for the examination world, unfortunately it isn’t quite far enough. What Paton doesn’t realize is that it’s not the method (as in delivery) that’s the problem, but rather the method (as in sitting down to answer short answer or true-or-false questions in a period of time). No where in the working world are people forced to recall knowledge in order to answer questions in a certain time limit. Rather, we have Google at our fingertips and whole libraries to access in order to solve problems and complete projects. This is the world and the reality in which we live.

I’ve been pondering this problem in my mind for quite some time now and have struggled answering the question, ‘If not paper exams, what then?’ What is a proper way to assess without the teacher being forced to complete hours upon hours of extra work in assessment designing and marking? What is a good way for students to demonstrate learning in a way that is authentic to the environments in which they will be involved in the future?

I believe the answer to this conundrum is going back to the purpose of final examinations – to ‘sum up’ what the student has learned in a way that can demonstrate that learning has taken place. NPR gives some suggestions in the article What Schools Could Use Instead Of Standardized Tests. These are all excellent and I’d like to give my solution that I will be adapting in my own Science classroom this term.

A Solution

I try to never complain without giving some sort of solution in its stead. As a middle school Science teacher, I asked myself, ‘What does it mean to be a scientist?’ Answering this question helped me to come up with a three-fold alternative solution to just giving a 15 page paper at the end of the term.

My solution is three fold:

  1. Vocabulary assessment
  2. Scientific discussion
  3. Plan and carry out an observation

A scientist uses scientific terms

I teach scientific terms and vocabulary alongside the concepts and expect my students to know how to use them. This would be true in any scientific industry, and you would look like a fool if you didn’t. But it’s more than just being able to regurgitate definitions. Using vocabulary in the proper conversation context is essential for a successful scientist.

At the end of this term, I will be giving students a response writing and requiring them to use the vocabulary taught in the term. It will be presented to them as an article that they should respond to in writing. It will be marked on their ability use vocabulary in context in responding in an authentic way.

A scientist has can hold a discussion with an informed opinion

I believe that scientists are able to discuss current topics and to be able to justify their opinions presented. They are able to learn from their discussions and be able to have great influence upon the scientific community just by asking questions.

At the end of this term, I will be presenting students with a topic and expect them to hold a discussion either with myself or with another students. The rubric for grading will be based off of their ability to use examples from the units we’ve studied in order to inform their opinion. I also will be grading their ability to carry on the conversation (i.e. “I disagree. I think that ___”).

A scientist makes observations

Of course, the king of all requirements for being a scientist is being able to use the scientific method in answering question. Schools do this all over the world through science fairs already. I just believe that students should be able to do this about any topic, as well as be able to do it naturally and in a way that drives their curiosity.

During the final exam time, students will have 2 to 3 hours to plan, implement and write about an observation about a randomly drawn topic. Topics must vary from student to student in order to avoid cheating and duplicates. Students will then need to prepare a plan (which must be approved), carry out their small observation, and then write a report for submission.

I believe that with careful thought, teachers of all subjects can carefully revise their subjects in order to provide a more meaningful end-of-term summative examination for students. The key is in asking what it is that we want them to be able to do as informed members of our world.

Have you reformed your end-of-term exams? Let me know what you did and how it went.

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