The golden rule of exams

NCEA_exam_papersI finished up classes with my teaching cover yesterday: circumstance now means that I’m likely to be marking their final exam too, so part of the time was given over to what they should expect.

As well as the usual stuff – how the paper is structured, what they have to answer, how questions do(n’t) relate to specific weeks in class – we also talked about more general technique, not least because this is a first year group.

The key point I asked them to focus on was what I consider to be the golden rule of all exams: answer the question.

It’s easy to forget how much this matters, both for students and assessors.

For students, exam situations are stressful and the more considered planning goes out of the window: a familiar word is spotted in a question and the student latches on to it, churning out everything they know about that word.

For assessors, that’s a big problem, because in effect it’s just the transmission-reproduction model of teaching. In such situations, it’s very hard indeed to evaluate the students’ ability to think and reflect on a question.

That’s why I repeatedly tell my students that I would not only prefer a shorter, less detailed answer that directly answered the question to a longer, more detailed one that didn’t, I would also mark the former more higher.

It’s also why the exam questions I tend to produce don’t map simply on to specific classes. This means students have to review all of their notes and work from class, because they can’t be sure what’s going to appear, or how they are going to have to use it. The relative novelty of the questions themselves (in terms of their formulation) also encourages students to read them more closely.

In so doing, we might hope to foster an environment where reflective practice is encouraged.

I’ll tell you in a few weeks’ time whether that worked or not.