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Monday, June 10, 2013

How examining exams can help teachers teach better

There may often be a direct correlation between exam success and the quality of the term's work. Exams ala Charlotte Mason can be a pretty good indicator of whether or not things are going well with books, methods, character, etc. Though maybe not in the way we'd be naturally inclined to think. We are primarily looking for what the student DOES know, not what they missed. Exam week should simply be an extension of term work, an opportunity for the student to remind herself (& you) of the things s/he has spent time caring to know about.

What we have perhaps failed to discover hitherto is the immense hunger for knowledge (curiosity) existing in everyone and the immeasurable power of attention with which everyone is endowed; that everyone likes knowledge best in a literary form; that the knowledge should be exceedingly various concerning many things on which the mind of man reflects; but that knowledge is acquired only by what we may call "the act of knowing," which is both encouraged and tested by narration, and which further requires the later test and record afforded by examinations."   v6, p291

Taking a closer look at how we feel about exams and reviewing the student's given answers, I suspect, we might uncover some clues as to how we as teachers could improve; in order to increase and inspire MORE opportunities for 'acts of knowing' in subsequent terms. If exams are stressful for our kids, maybe we're getting too much in the way, or pressuring them unduly. If their answers are lacking, maybe we're asking the wrong questions. Or maybe the books we're feeding them are leaving them dry as dust? Considering exams can also help us become aware of personal weak spots (ours and theirs).

In this post, I'm going to take a look at a couple areas that recent examinations have exposed in our homeschool. But first, let's look at some of the main perks, guidelines and ideals in term exams.

Boys and girls taught in this way take up ordinary school work, preparation for examinations, etc., with intelligence, zeal, and success. v3, p302

When the terminal examination is at hand so much ground has been covered that revision is out of the question; what the children have read they know, and write on any part of it with ease and fluency... v6, p7

At the end of the term an examination paper is sent out containing one or two questions on each book. v3, p273

They appear to enjoy doing this; indeed, the examinations which come at the end of each term are a pleasure; the only difficulty is that small children want to go on 'telling.' v3, p276

For it is a mistake to suppose that the greater the number of 'subjects' the greater the scholar's labour; the contrary is the case as the variety in itself affords refreshment, and the child who has written thirty or forty sheets during an examination week comes out unfagged. Not the number of subjects but the hours of work bring fatigue to the scholar; and bearing this in mind we have short hours and no evening preparation. v6, p158

It is not the best children that answer the examination questions; the general rule is that everybody takes every question. v6, p297

After the experience of over a quarter of a century in selecting the lesson books proper to children of all ages, we still make mistakes, and the next examination paper discovers the error! Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book; and the difficulty of selection is increased by the fact that what they like in books is no more a guide than what they like in food. v6, p249

"The terminal examinations are of great importance. They are not merely and chiefly tests of knowledge but records which are likely to be permanent. There are things which every child must know, every child, for the days have gone by when 'the education befitting a gentleman' was our aim. v6, p291

So, now that we have those key things about exams in our minds, let's take as an example a few of the things that our recent exams have made me aware of in our homeschool.

Books (History, Geography, Literature, etc):
This is my kids' strong point. What they read, they know. And I love that. As long as the questions are open-ended, they can usually give me something awesome. (Over the years there have been a very few problem books, when they just don't 'care' and there was serious lack of 'book connect'. But thankfully, that wasn't the case this term. Besides, I'm usually aware of that before exam time anyway).
Teacher takeaway: I can't take credit for all our book choices. But I can take credit for choosing the way we do learning around here. I'm SO glad for Charlotte Mason's philosophy, especially her emphasis on living books, and for AO's attempt at modern day CM programmes! :)
Something we've learned from past years... one issue we have to be careful of in particular is, having two students in the same year, they share the same books. I have to be careful to give the kids their questions a solas or else give them different questions, otherwise they are bent towards comparing.

Artist study:
Not one of my kids knew the name of our artist this term. Um, that's right, nobody knew. And I am a little embarrassed about that. Poor Seurat. While everyone definitely had a favorite painting or two or three, and I did read about the artist and mention his name, somehow it completely slipped ALL of their minds.
Teacher takeaway: Frequently, but unobtrusively, incorporate artist's name, the name of painting and other interesting data into weekly picture studies.

Several of my kids don't write their names/dates very well. Though, this is not the end of the world with an 8yo, it is practically unforgivable with a 14yo.
Teacher takeaway: After thinking, I've realized that I rarely ask for assignments where they write their names. I bet it won't take more than a week to fix this little slip.

Also, CM says this, "Children in Class III. write the whole of their examination work." (v3, p288) Yet, my y8 students did about half written and half oral answers. I suppose that's in part because we did exams this year over three days instead of an entire week, and oral work is quicker. But the other part, honest-to-goodness, is due to my extreme aversion to reading cryptic handwriting and diversified spelling (note the courteous phrasing). I can honestly hardly bear reading their written answers. This is my bad.
Teacher takeaway: This is completely lackadaisical on my part. I need to keep them writing and I need to diligently correct a portion of their weekly written work. Even if I hate it. Perhaps not tons, but a regular amount until we see marked improvement. I am failing them as a writing teacher if I don't.

Anything musical seems to be the most happy part of all our schooling. Everyone everywhere around here likes to sing everything singable every term, be it folksongs, hymns, harmony... what have you, we like it. Fun, huh?!
Teacher takeaway: Keep up the good work! And on the dull days, sing something to cheer us all up. Make sure to stay positively encouraging in everything musical. And PLEASE get on top of piano lessons before it's too late!!

Recitation and Memorization:
We consider these two separate subjects, even though there can be overlap. All of my kids did well with their recitations considering how little they've actually been taught. They read their selections nicely with good enunciation and inflection, even if their eyes were glued to the page. It was obvious their teacher {ahem!} had failed to teach them of the importance of connecting with the audience (eye contact, body language, etc). The only memorization we do is several Bible selections a term.
Teacher takeaway: While I regularly feel we come up short on the quantity of memorized material each term, my kids are slowly improving their presentation of such. I have given very little attention to the whole read aloud/memorize, prepare and present for an audience thing each week. Next term, I'll set aside some moments to go over this each week and maybe watch some examples on youtube.

"It cannot be too often said that information is not education. You may answer an examination question about the position of the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands without having been anywise nourished by the fact of these island groups existing in such and such latitudes and longitudes; but if you follow Bullen in The Cruise of the Cachelot the names excite that little mental stir which indicates the reception of real knowledge."  v3, p169

So, we know that even with Charlotte Mason style exams, as with other types of exams, at first glance, children might come off successfully from exams without having cared deeply about the term's work. But hopefully, as we listen carefully to their answers, especially to what's between the lines, we'll sense the extent to which they really care about the knowledge they're acquiring. Troubleshooting, we may look into areas of personal habits as well as quality of material. It's the teacher's job to analyze these things, adjusting to make sure we're doing all we can to lay the feast, stay out of the way and encourage the child to take a personal interest in and responsibility for learning. Our ultimate goal being that they and we take advantage of the full life set before us.

“The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” v3, p171

More Fisher posts on exams:
Nervous about CM-style exams? Don't be.
Our Exams {AO year 8, term 3}


Celeste said...

I really like your reflections here--I find exams to be similarly elucidating, even though I have only little ones. The topics they remember most and the questions they answer with eagerness and flair--I am always so pleased to hear these narrations and know that the books are working their magic. ;) And then the areas in which they seem timid, unsure, like they're just going through the motions...well, those are the areas I pinpoint to rethink, reimagine...or sometimes just tweak if I think that tweak will get us to where we need to be. To see exams as an opportunity for understanding the student and the process better rather than a chance to punish poor performance--good stuff. :)

amyinperu said...

and i'm so glad, celeste, that you've started seeing the benefits even though your kids are so young! i didn't do exams when my eldest were small so i feel like we had a steeper learning curve. it would have been SO much better if i'd done it all along... but, my younger set have been eased in from the beginning and it feels so much more natural with them!

Carol said...

Very helpful content here, Amy.

Richele Baburina said...

Wow, Amy, talk about total transparency. It was refreshing to read such an honest post. Our final exams shed a lot of light on where I need to be consistent as well. The happiness was hearing the ideas that took hold in my children.

Richele Baburina said...

Oh, I forgot to give you my love : ) <3

Probhita Shew said...

Hi Amy, I am attempting exams for the first time and your post has definitely eased some of my queasiness - note, 'some'! Thank you for this post!

Alesha H said...

had read this earlier and was encouraged by it. :) I We just finished our first "Term Exams" today! I still need to step back and reflect on paper, but I agree. I learned a LOT about my learners...and we had a suprising amount of fun!

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