Exam time is here… again
Exams are on my mind at the moment. Exams are often on my mind, in fact but this period in the summer is one which is particularly busy for us here at the University of Verona. We tend to focus on content, tasks, levels, intake, grades and so on when we talk about assessment but today I wanted to think about the exam as a “gathering”.
Exams are part of our psychology
The idea of exams is deep-rooted in our society. As children we listen to fairy tales where princes are given tasks so that their worth, integrity and valour can be tested. Passing a test unlocks power and enables experts to practise their expertise. The idea of being wise, skillful and knowledgeable is one that we all buy in to. After all, the argument goes, we want to know that the doctors who are treating us or the pilots who are flying the planes we travel in, know what they are doing.
The question, however, remains of how suitable the test they are taking is. If a prince can slay a dragon, does that necessarily mean that he is a suitable match for the princess? Probably, yes, because if he can slay dragons then he can protect a kingdom too, and if that is the purpose of the test, then all well and good. It does not, however, mean that he will automatically be a good husband, because that is not what was being tested. The idea that the test should be difficult is also deeply ingrained, it should sort the sheep from the goats so that we can recognise the very best… or should it? In our present educational system we are moulded by humanistic thinking that puts the learner at the centre of the process. If, when teaching, we do this, fostering the best in each learner, then surely our exams should do the same, enabling the candidates to do their own, personal very best.
This, however, brings me to my second point which is that competition is also part of our world. This is reflected, for instance, in the hundreds of game shows that abound on television, on the Internet, on the sports field and just about everywhere else. When I was at school there was talk of healthy competition and how it brought out the best in individuals. Well, it does in some individuals but not everyone. In a learner centred system the problem with competition is that there can only be few “winners” and the “losers” are doomed to think of themselves as such, which can condition them throughout their lives. If our system is truly learner centred, and that is a big “if”, then competition should be personal the competition you take part in with yourself to be the best you can be.
How not to organise an exam
The psychological importance of the way exams are organised is a key factor in how successful candidates are or are not in a particular exam. and it is an aspect that I think we may tend to underestimate. Part of this is the idea of the gathering as being a coming together of people, and how this “gathering” should be organised. We tend to take it for granted that those who take the exam can cope with it, but, speaking as one who has taken quite a few exams myself, the organisation of how candidates are gathered can actually be nerve-wracking for the candidates, even though I am quite sure that this is often completely unintentional.
I remember one exam I took, for instance, where we had taken the written part in the morning and those who, hearts beating frantically, rushed to the noticeboard to see that they were among the few who had passed, were then told to come back at the beginning of the afternoon for the oral test. I met a friend, had lunch and was, actually, quite relaxed by the time two o’clock came round, but little did I know that this was when the true ordeal was about to start.
We were all waiting together in a clinically grey corridor on plastic chairs that showed how much our comfort meant to those who had invested in them. Some people, who had taken the exam several times before , lost no time telling everyone how gruelling the experience was and then the examiners, three of them, arrived looking harassed, probably rushing there from a previous job or engagement that was still very much on their minds.
The afternoon wore on…
Each candidate was called in, took the oral exam, and was then sent back to the “waiting area” until the examiners reached a decision. Time after time, someone came out of that room, and in full view of everyone else said something like. “I’m very sorry you haven’t passed this time, we hope to see you again soon.” Can you imagine the effect this was having on all the other candidates? Some passed but a lot of people did not. I was one of the last to be called. I had spent several hours in psychological anguish waiting for my turn and was now so depressed by the whole thing that I said to myself:
“You are an adult human being”
“You can speak this language well”
“The examiners are human beings too”
“The only thing to do is to put the interview on an equal footing by smiling at them and talking to them, making jokes when appropriate and asking them questions too.”
“What have you got to lose?”
My strategy worked because I was one of the lucky few who passed, but I had a lot of experience and was able to talk myself into the appropriate frame of mind to be able to do the exam. How true was this of many of the others who were younger, less experienced and perhaps less confident than me? What, in fact, was the true test here: a language competence test or a psychological fitness test?
My point, however, is that none of this was intentional. The examiners were obviously unaware of the effect the way the people had been gathered was having and yet it would have taken very little to change things.
The power of the gathering
I have recently been reading an interesting book on this subject called “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/319055/the-art-of-gathering-by-priya-parker/9781594634925/
She discusses many aspects of what is key in a gathering ranging from having a clear purpose to focusing on the participants in a gathering rather than the content, flowers, food etc. The purpose ostensibly in this case was to conduct an exam, presumably to assess language competence enabling the candidates to do their best. Small changes would have been helpful such as:
1) time slots for people to come for the exam instead of the whole afternoon;
2) a comfortable waiting area which is separate from the exam taking area;
3) an other waiting area for those who have already taken the exam, so that they can leave without being seen by the others;
4) something for test takers to do to lesson the anxiety of waiting ( a drinks machine, reading materials, information about the exam centre etc.)
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, but there could be many more.
My exam last week
So, how would you do it? I can hear you all asking and I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do try to focus on my students and their needs. Last week my third year university students did their final written test. There were about fifty of them in a university lecture theatre, which can be off putting. Some of them arrived about half an hour before the exam clutching their dictionaries with worried expressions on their faces. I asked one or two of them to do practical things like switching on lights or closing windows so that the air conditioning would work… just to calm them down a bit. When quite a few people had arrived I told them I’d be back in ten minutes and that in the meantime they could chat to each other in English to psyche themselves for the exam. (I organised them into small groups of four or five people and left them to it). When I came back the atmosphere was lighter, there was quite a bit of chatter and more people had arrived.
At this point, I could have given them a lot of procedural instructions but I decided not to. I handed out the papers,
Then I said something like:
“I know some of you are feeling anxious. This is an exam and it goes with the territory but please remember to breathe… Breathe, use the exam to show me how much you know and enjoy. Off you go!”
The atmosphere changed and they started work. I then went round to check the things I had to check with each student and wrote the other information they needed to know on the board. Half way through the exam I interrupted them for a minute, told them that we were half way through and could they please just read this important information.
They then went back to work and at the end handed in their papers and left.
Yes, I know that I could probably have done more, and despite my best efforts I heard some of them in the corridor terrifying each other with a post mortem of the exam…. Habits die hard.
Gathering starts well in advance of the event
My students have a closed Facebook group and as the moment of the exams approaches I post lighthearted videos that are relevant as well as other questions or discussions that they can take part in, in an informal way. This pre-exam interaction is all part of it, I think, and helps to build a community spirit which then helps them feel that they belong on the day of the exam itself. The purpose of my exam is for students to show me that they can not only remember the content of the course but think critically about it and express that. I am not interested in perfection or perfectly memorised answers to questions. I see my course as whetting my students’ interest in certain areas of linguistics, translation studies and corpora. I do not expect them to be experts after one course. They know this too, and what it means is that, although it was clear that some people had not really prepared at all, they were in the minority and the majority , in fact, did well.
I’m not saying that it is easy to gauge the gathering techniques needed in an event like an exam, but I do find it worrying, as I said at the beginning, that many exam organisers do not take these factors into consideration at all, or are unaware of how important they are. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences too. 🙂