Sunday, February 6, 2011

Why do we give exams (part 2)

David Martin teaches high school math in Red Deer, Alberta. You can find David's blog here and follow him on Twitter here.

by David Martin

Why do we give exams?

After asking many teachers the top three answers that have been given are:

1.      “To assess, and find out actually what the students know” Rebuttal to this

2.      “If we don’t test it, the students won’t want to learn it”

3.      “Hold teachers accountable for their teaching`

Rebuttal to 2:

First, we need to understand that there is difference between learning and achievement.  For more click here.  

Second, if a student asks you, “Why do I have to learn this?” and your first or only response is “for the test”, then you are actually destroying any possible engagement.  People need to understand that learners don’t ask for the application to challenge the teacher, but actually want to understand the meaning behind the concept.  

If there truly is NO real life application then I would first advise you to contact those in charge of your mandated outcomes and ask them why you need to teach the specific outcome.  In the defense of the government, if they don’t know there is a problem, how can we expect them to find a solution?

Assuming that the outcome does have real life application, we should be focusing on the relevance and not the mindless repetition of the outcome.  Contrary to some popular belief, students do crave knowledge, but they need to be shown the “why” just as often as the “how”.  

For some outcomes this is an easy task, while for others I understand this can be quite difficult.  I, however, do believe that no matter how challenging it might be to show the “why”, the learning that will occur because of it, will make the journey worth taking.  

An exam should not be the reason anything is taught in a class.  “Teaching to the test” should be the equivalent of swearing in a classroom; something that should NEVER be done or even entertained. I read the following, and became sick to my stomach!

Everything that has to do with the test has been given such a high priority, that there is no priority any more but that … The bottom line question comes down to, "Well, what’s going to help them do better on the test?" And if it’s not going to help them do better on the test, well, we don’t have time for that right now (Wright, 2002, p.10).
I would hope, that most agree, that the above statement is not one that teachers should be making.  If you believe, however, that a test is the only way students will learn, you are on your way to making the statement above.  I strongly encourage educators to allow students to find significance in given tasks, and you will start to see that your test no longer becomes the reason students want to learn.


  1. Even though I teach what is basically middle school "pre-engineering" (specifically automation, robotics, electricity, and electronics), I'm working harder to have how I assess their learning be based on how they apply their knowledge as they work on projects rather than the minutia of worksheets and activities as I build up their background knowledge. Kind of akin to how a coach moves a team from fundamental skills, that you repeat as necessary to hopefully gain some level of mastery, to putting it into use in the game.

    In my summatives, I am trying to move to more open and narrative based responses, sometimes even as broad as "tell me about one of the things you learned over the past few weeks." At this point, I should have a good idea of whether or not they are meeting the performance objectives of the unit - I am really wanting to see what learning "sticks" in their minds.

    Thanks, Joe for this blog, and thanks David for giving us plenty more to ponder as work to break certain paradigms!

  2. I have to disagree about one point. You said, "and you will start to see that your test no longer becomes the reason students want to learn." I'm not sure tests have EVER been the reason students want to learn!! They've learned DESPITE them...they do the tests because we make them. I like the quote you included...tests have become like white noise. Again, I think there is a huge difference between assessment and test. Thanks for the post!

  3. David,
    Great post! Thanks for this. It is a subject dear to my heart. @Tomschimmer touched on the reason why when he disagreed with you, and now, I'll do a backatcha and disagree with him.

    @Tomschimmer says that students have learned despite the tests. I will flip it this way, from my personal experience. I didn't learn because of the tests. The tests made me hate learning and as a result I spent more than 12 years in school and walked away learning very little of what was tested beyond the day of memorization. I feel disgusted and cheated out of a real education that made testing companies and textbook companies rich but wasted years of my life.

    David and Tomschimmer, you might be interested to read this post on my blog written by an adult who was never tested in school because she never went to school.
    But How Will Kids Know? – Learning with out Testing

  4. I think that you are assuming written tests are the only form of exam. Taking tests is healthy for students so they can avoid illusions of competence. If written tests have a negative connotation for them, you should try another form of test. But they need to test they learning.


There was an error in this gadget

Follow by Email