Exams

(for the man, Karl Ove Knausgaard)

Exams are tests or evaluations. A physician may perform a physical exam on a patient, to evaluate overall health or to diagnose a particular illness or injury. An appraiser may closely examine an antique or work of art to assess its value or authenticity. I know a man who has an irrational fear that the products he buys at the grocery store have been tampered with, before purchasing an item, he will examine it—its packaging, seals, surface area—to ensure that nothing is out of the ordinary, and regularly, although this examination brings up nothing awry, his paranoia prevents him from buying the product anyway. 

In schools, exams are a way of evaluating student learning, often at the midpoint or end of a course. Sometimes—especially if a large number of students are writing the same one at the same time—an exam may take the form of a multiple choice test, perhaps even a Scantron test, where the examinee shares information by colouring in little oval bubbles on a standardised test paper, which is then fed through a scanner machine that reads the information by using light to identify which oval bubbles have been filled in. Inevitably, during a large Scantron test, one or more students fills in the oval bubbles incorrectly; drawing an X or a check mark rather than colouring the bubble in; using red or green ink, neither of which create enough contrast for the test to be read; filling the oval bubbles in too lightly or too unevenly; et cetera. It is also not unusual for students who are inadequately prepared, or feeling apathetic or just plain silly, to fill in the oval bubbles in order to create a picture, pattern, or message, probably most likely something like a smiley face, penis, zigzag, ACDC or ACAB, respectively, rather than to try to answer the exam questions correctly. While there is the potential for this to result in a traditional ‘passing’ grade on the exam—as it would be a nearly impossible task, let alone a colossal waste of time, for an educator to design the series of correct answers with the avoidance of pictures, patterns, or messages, even the most expected ones, in mind—it is unlikely. I have sometimes had trouble with Scantron tests when I am required to provide my full legal name, which contains 30 characters without, or 33 characters with, spaces. There are not always enough bubbles for me to fill in “Jessica Elizabeth Swaine Sheppard,” which means that, if directions about what to do are not provided, I must use my best judgment to determine whether it is best to leave “Swaine” out entirely, default to middle initials, or simply include as much of my name as I can before I run out of space. Being forced to make this judgment call feels arbitrary, and for some may undermine the exam-writing experience before it has even begun. 

Not all, in fact it might be fair to say not most, exams rely on Scantron. Often, regardless of the form(s) of questions comprising the exam, students indicate their answers on the exam paper itself. This is helpful for those of us with longer names, if we have to indicate them in their entirety, as we can adjust our handwriting accordingly, making it smaller or narrower in order to fit our name into the space provided, or perhaps by choosing to write outside of that space. There is more leeway for how this sort of exam is filled out, too: on an exam paper that will be read and marked by an actual human, a student can successfully indicate a multiple choice or true/false answer by circling, underlining, or otherwise marking either the whole answer or a small part of it; longer answers might be expressed as lists, full sentences, diagrams, charts, graphs, or other organizers. This does not prevent students from drawing silly pictures or providing nonsense answers if they choose to do so, but it does provide them with the option of more than one method of expression. Often, exams require students to write by hand, even though this is something many rarely do in class nowadays. Before the proliferation of personal computers, when the majority, if not all, classwork, homework, and assignments were completed by hand, the written exam was normalised, it didn’t introduce an underutilised form of communication into a high-stakes context, causing stress around the arbitrary possibility of penmanship rather than knowledge influencing students’ achievement. Beyond general legibility, idiosyncratic loops, hooks, tails, or character shapes are a factor with handwritten exams, and one that may be exacerbated by the fact that many students so rarely practice writing by hand, at least in large output tasks. Often, students’ handwriting will deteriorate over the course of an exam, or they may invest so much energy into writing neatly, mincing ideas to focus on legibility, that they are never able to reach a flow state with their thoughts. Like the arbitrary alteration of one’s name to fit a Scantron form, or a passing grade that is the product of a random, creative filling in of bubbles, rather than a legitimate attempt to answer the questions posed, one might argue that it’s a game. The minced, truncated nature of many written exam responses—which are furthermore dependent upon the quality of penmanship and the assessor’s ability to interpret it—seem to rely on a plenitude of falsity. 

This is not to say that all students struggle with exams, or that every exam is rife with contrivances, there are many situations in which exams are used quite effectively as an evaluative basis of requisite skills or knowledge, when taking a driving test or becoming certified in first aid, for example, and so it is reasonable to expect students to practice the skill of exam-taking as they are bound to use it in life. And, like the mastery of any skill or subject, students are likely to derive pride from the successful completion of exams, particularly if they worked hard or if their success was unexpected; many teachers and parents have encountered students brimming with genuine pride after exceeding their own expectations on an exam, and this sort of authentic satisfaction can be the basis of growth in confidence, which is generally beneficial. Ideally, this success and confidence is rooted in thoughtful, meaningful learning, learning that transcends subject and format. 

An ELL student, Tom, who came from China and struggled tremendously with English for over two years, described in his summative colloquy the difference between studying ESL for comprehension versus English for communication of ideas: “it’s like language is an apple. ESL is the skin. But English class is what’s inside when you take a bite.” As many educators prepare for or reflect upon the exam period, how might we ensure that students are being offered a whole bite of the apple? 

 

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