Usually proctoring (or invigilating in UK English) written exams at my university is a somewhat trying experience. Trying because I sit at the front of the classroom for over an hour in silence punctuated only by the frustrated sighing of my students. Looking out I see a sea of furrowed brows, scratched heads and, occasionally, expressions of total mental capitulation. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, students have quite often prioritized other studies (possibly including studying the effects of drinking and computer games on exam scores) over English and therefore aren’t especially well prepared for the exam. It’s important for me to recognize this as an examiner and to accept that I can’t write an exam that pleases everyone, especially those who don’t bother to prepare. However, the second reason for the atmosphere of general malaise in the exam room is that I am still far from a good writer of exams, and this is something that I would like to improve. This post will be a slightly self indulgent one (aren’t they all?) in which I have a look at what I did and what I can do better. I’m going to come back to this each time I write an exam to remind myself, and I’m putting it out there in case there’s anything to be learned from it for others.
Let’s start with the specifics. The worst question that I wrote on this exam (about a very common mistake) went like this:
Correct (수정) the underlined word in the sentence (1 point) and write it again on the line below using different language, but keeping the same meaning. (1 point)
3. I’m going on a date. I bought new shoes and jeans to look gentle.
This is fine as far as the first ‘(1 point)’, but then gets very confusing. So much so, in fact, that when grading the exam I misunderstood my own instructions and only marked the first part of the question and not the second. I was confused by students offering different versions of both of the word and sentence. There are two main problems here. The first is that the pronoun ‘it’ in the instructions could refer to either the word or the sentence, and here it’s more likely referring to the word. Largely this is just crap writing on my part, but it does also point to a wider issue that pronouns are an area of confusion for low level students and something that I should perhaps try to avoid in future.
The second problem here is that the instruction is not particularly clear anyway, especially if you’re reading the sentence on this blog. What I intended in writing the question was to challenge students to use a couple of other ways of expressing cause (“because I wanted to / so I would”), but without some form guidance it relies on students remembering the classroom context, and essentially turns the exam into a game of ‘guess what the teacher wants us to say’, which I would sincerely like my exams, and class in general, not to be. Next time I need to remember that it’s dangerous to rely on classroom context too much, and that anyone sitting down to take my exams should be able to supply the answers from a good knowledge of English.
While reflecting on this exam I wondered whether an example would have helped, but there was only one question of this type on the exam. It’s also very difficult to exemplify something like this without giving the answer away. However, I could have easily supplied a hint in the form of “because” and/or “so” as a prompt.
This is a general pattern in my exam writing. My question prompts tend to be too open, and this probably confuses students and also makes grading more difficult. Take these two examples:
Think of a movie that you saw recently. Write a sentence about parts of the movie. You must use some of the language that we used in class in each sentence.
Respond to these questions and give some helpful extra information.
Again, these are really hard to interpret without classroom context. What’s worse, in the first part, is that it doesn’t even call for successful or interesting use of the loosely defined “language we used in class”, but simply that it be used. This leads to answers like “his facial emotion is emotional”, which I feel like from the instructions deserves at least partial credit as we talked about emotional as a way to describe acting. The second instruction is a little bit better, but still requires much more clarity. What I wanted students to do was answer a yes/no question and supply a little bit more information in order to help the conversation to progress. Again this led to some strange answers that were difficult to grade. I also mixed some questions that followed on from each other with others that didn’t without really specifying which was which, and based following questions on expected answers to previous questions, answers which students didn’t give in some cases, making it impossible to answer the next question. On reflection the whole thing would have been much better set as a discourse completion task – something which would suit the conversation based nature of the class much better anyway.
These problems are symptomatic of a tension between language work and communication work that I often feel both in class and when writing exams. Largely my class is a conversation based one, with the emphasis on just saying something rather than saying something ‘correctly’. Prompts like the two under discussion here are an attempt to mirror that in an exam, but then they have to graded as such, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of understanding or interest. Something which might go over fine between two students in conversation can look pretty senseless written down.
Basically, these prompts are me getting caught between assessing communication and assessing language (though I’d accept that there may not be a clear space between them in which to get caught). I either have to go one way or the other into a more open writing prompt with a rubric, or to more language based assessment; I can see plenty of good reasons not to do either. Asking my students to write extendedly in an exam seems unfair if we don’t do any writing in class*. On the other hand, a totally language knowledge based exam doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the class, might require spending more time in class looking at language, and would probably be even more difficult than this exam was, as a lot of the marks that the students did get came from open prompts.
This I think is the last thing I want to talk about here, which is difficulty and grading. As I mentioned above, this exam was difficult for the students, as the two histograms below hint at.
On the diagram above, 5 refers to students scoring between 0 and 5 out of a maximum of 50. Bearing in mind that I work on around 90% being an A, and somewhere in the low 80%’s being a B, this exam left nobody getting an A and only 4 of 40 students getting a B. Honestly this is probably a-whole-nother blog post in itself, but clearly something is wrong here. Either the students are not learning what I think they are, or I am not giving them enough time in class to learn the stuff that I think is important, or they’re not learning full stop. When setting exams I’m definitely drawn to learning, and I hate setting questions about things that students should already know, but maybe that’s necessary to move the distribution up a bit. However I need to consider the kind of effect that it might have on students – will these marks give them a bit of a kick up the arse, or will they shatter the confidence that I had done pretty well at building up over the semester? Perhaps it might be a good time to collect some feedback?
I think I’ve got almost as far as I’m going to get with this post, but I’d welcome any thoughts anyone has on this, as I feel like I’ve made a little progress here, but there’s still some way to go. As a final bonus, here’s some other things that I need to think about next time:
- Using the British “maths” leads to all sorts of subject-verb agreement horrors.
- Be careful when using “repeat” if I really mean “rephrase”.
- How important is spelling? Is “claims” an acceptable attempt at “clams” if I tend to de-emphasise the importance of spelling. How about “cramps”?
- How can I make listening questions more difficult. Could I think about speaking faster or using a different accent?
* Although if the rubric assessed students in a similar way to our classwork (eg. content, understandability, interest) I guess it wouldn’t be so bad.