PedagogyPop QuizSecondary Education

Pop Quiz: The Horror of Exam Day

It’s exam season in my school and that means that the corridors are filled with lots of panicking faces. Every year, the last week of April and the entirety of May are given over to formal exams that provide our pupils with the qualifications that will get them into universities or that will be attractive to potential employers. We don’t have anything like the SAT, so the various subject-based exams that a student sits towards the end of their time at school are absolutely vital to their future prospects. There are several different types of exam at several different level, based on academic ability and intended post-school destination.

Scotland’s a small country, so these exams are all written and administered by a centralised government body known as the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority). This means that although the exams take place in schools, teachers have zero input on the day of the exam. External employees come in to run each exam and someone like me can get into quite a lot of trouble if we go sniffing around where the exam is taking place. Also, each exam takes place simultaneously across the entire country. This means that at 9am this coming Monday, almost every single young person in Scotland of a certain age will be sitting a specific English exam at the same time.

One of my subject’s courses, known as Higher English, is of particular interest to a lot of pupils. It’s one of the major qualifications that universities look for and is taken very seriously by employers. For example, every prospective teacher must pass this course before they start their teacher training, no matter what subject area they want to train in.

The problem with Higher English is that, up until a few years ago, it was assessed entirely through a final examination. There was no coursework, there were no midterms, there was no continuous assessment. One hundred percent of a pupil’s final grade for the course came from their performance on one day at the end of the year. This meant that the exam for the course tended to cause extreme stress for many pupils; they could screw up their entire future in the space of one hour.

A few years ago the course was changed a little in an attempt to spread the assessment load move evenly across the year. Now, pupils have to submit a folio of writing pieces earlier in the year and they have quite a long time to work on these pieces. This folio makes up 20% of the overall course grade, meaning that a whopping 80% still comes from that one exam day at the end of the year.

I’m not a fan of this type of assessment at all. When I studied at university in the USA I experienced courses that provided multiple midterm exams throughout the year. These courses still had a final exam at the end, but it was far less severe because it wasn’t a make-or-break situation. I’d much rather make use of this approach in my own teaching, but my hands are tied by the very formal structure of our courses. I’m not sure that one major final exam is that good a test of deep understanding, at least compared to a more structured and spread-out system like the one I experienced at university.

For your Pop Quiz today, I wanted to find out what you thought about exams.

Is the “huge final exam” system familiar to you? What are your views about exams like this?

How do you feel about continual assessment throughout an academic course, perhaps through the use of midterm exams or coursework?

What are your views about exams as a whole? Do you think that they’re useful? Are you opposed to assessment like this as a concept? What would you do instead?


The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

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Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

1 Comment

  1. April 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm —

    Then there’s always the Italian system, where the final exam is oral and often different for each student. I go back and forth on whether this is a fair practice or not–I like that it gives the instructor the ability to probe the student in different areas and let the conversation develop naturally (especially changing topics when the student can’t answer certain questions), but at the same time I don’t like that students are not all tested on the same material and therefore two students who know the same information can get wildly different marks depending on how the exam progresses.

    I think that in the future I will probably use some variation on the oral final in my own teaching, either in conjunction with a written one or with final research papers (provided the class is small enough to do so), precisely because it allows you to zero in on the material students are interested in/excited about/have mastered rather quickly and makes for a more interesting experience than reading the same canned response to a test question twenty times. But yes, some kind of evaluation throughout the term is really important if you want students to know what they should be focusing on and the kind of responses that will be expected of them once the final exam rolls around.

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