Teaching Reflections · Topics for Parents and Students

Yes, Students Should Write Exams

Then…

In the stone age, when I was a student in Ontario’s elementary and secondary school systems, we began writing exams in grade 7. At that time, I was explicitly taught how to study, and put that learning into practice writing exams in compulsory subjects: English, French, Geography, Math, History and Science. Since I went to a french immersion school, three of our ‘exams’ were in English (English, Math and History), while three were in French (French, Geography and Science).

In retrospect, these first ‘exams’ were more like unit tests, but calling them ‘exams’ gave them clout that a regular test did not have. As students, we rose to the occasion to try and do our best as a result of their ‘importance’. I don’t remember doing exceptionally well or poorly on those first exams, but I do remember that by the time I reached high school, the idea of an ‘exam’ was not foreign to me, nor was it terrifying – as it was for some students who didn’t share my elementary alma mater.

Exam writing then proceeded throughout the rest of my academic career quite seamlessly, and I continued applying those early study skills taught way back in grade 7. Getting my feet wet with exams at an early age wasn’t something I was probably fond of then, but it certainly helped prepare me for my future.

Now…

Fast forward 30 years to our current school system. Depending on the elementary school they attended, few of my students enter my grade 9 classroom with any idea of how to study and/or approach a test, let alone an exam. Years of ‘differentiated learning’ , ‘group work’ and ‘practical assessments’ have deprived students of learning these important skills.

Moreover, a mere mention of the word, ‘exam’ breathes fear and complaining. Even though it is something they’ve never attempted, they are certain it is beyond their capabilities. That’s sad; I can only imagine how terribly demoralizing this reaction is for them.

Regardless, we roll up our sleeves and prepare to write exams. I teach them my old tried and true study method, as well as help them create and use study notes. Some do exceptionally well; others fight the entire way – hoping they can somehow morph into their elementary school selves and avoid anything that might challenge them. Unfortunately, since in secondary school students can actually fail courses, they quickly learn the hard way that this is no longer possible.

Why…

As you can probably tell by this point, I’m a huge advocate of exams as an assessment strategy. It’s not because I’m mean or looking to fail my students – I have genuine arguments for this point of view.

My first argument focuses on authenticity of work. In education today, the accessibility and ubiquitousness of the Internet and digital devices causes a significant student dependency on technology, instead of actually using their brains. Check out my blog on this general topic here: 5 Tips to Move Students from Googling to Thinking in the age of Distance Learning. When a student must write an exam, free of digital support, I’m assessing their independent knowledge and skills.

Similarly, the general decline in parenting, referred to societally as ‘helicopter parenting’, ‘lawnmower parenting’, etc. has created a similar issue of lack of integrity in any work stemming from the home environment. Sadly, this is often no fault of the student, yet that of their overbearing and unscrupulous parents who will do anything they can to cheat their child’s way through school. As a result, with many students today, any assessment that enters the home environment cannot be graded as authentic student work. Logically, students cannot transport their parents into exam rooms, therefore the exam assessment will show the actual learning applications of students, free from their parents control.

Secondly, if exams are written properly, I can specifically hone in on exactly what I need to assess as curriculum expectations. Once completed, the results will provide an excellent snapshot of student learning. I’m also of the train of thought that exams do not need to always be the traditional ‘paper and pen’ method, but can also include conversation or observation of skills, which creates a multifaceted assessment.

Finally, I’m an old fashion believer in the idea that challenging students is ok; hard work is ok; and in many cases it translates to students gaining a sense of pride, accomplishment and confidence in my subject area. Studying and preparing for exams is a serious, challenging task – and there is nothing wrong with that. This practice helps students develop organizational skills, manage time effectively, and focus on hard work over an extended period of time. Through preparing and completing exams, students can learn self-reliance and resilience. These are life long skills that they can apply in a variety of situations in their future.

Final Word

Although exams are an ‘option’ for course culminating tasks at the secondary level in Ontario, it is my belief that they should be mandatory – in every course. In the current world of education, they really are one of the only methods of generating authentic learning from students. Moreover, they allow students opportunities for independence, resilience and confidence – all attributes that students in our modern world are desperately in need of.

How do you feel about exams? Should students write them – or have you found other forms of assessment that work just as well? Comment below!

4 thoughts on “Yes, Students Should Write Exams

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that exams play a very important role in providing individual academic accountability for students. I might argue that they could be weighted a bit less in students’ overall grades, but the skills learned would be a missed opportunity without them. In my mind, I agree that their value is not so much about the content, but rather the resilience, focus, and perseverance to get through exams – this is the real learning piece. A balanced approach that includes all types of assessment is the way to go, and sometimes in life – it’s got to be just YOU, and what you know! We have gotten away from this ‘stone age’ process far too much, and the lack of personal confidence and accountability shows in our students.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Melanie. I agree that supporting our students to become independent, confident adults is the most important aspect of our job as educators. Exams absolutely offer the opportunity for these lessons, and I agree that our students desperately need these skills.

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  2. As usual, I wholly agree with you, Kyleen. With this pandemic as well, students have written few, if any exams, for a year now. I am disappointed that we only have culminating activities this and last semesters.
    Kelly Rodriguez

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    1. Thx, Kelly! We had the option the administer exams this semester so many of our core subjects are following through on exams…with quite a bit of pushback, unfortunately;(

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