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A Few Thoughts on Final Examinations

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A Few Thoughts on Final Examinations

Last May, after our students wrote their IB exams, I started thinking about how much time they spent in the exam room and what the purpose of this experience might have been.
Currently, a full IB candidate can spend about twenty hours (sometimes more, as it depends on the course combination) writing exams during a three-week window. This is, of course, without the countless hours of projects, orals, labs, essays, and the like over the course of their two-year program.
My first question is about time: do we really need four hours and forty-five minutes to determine if a student is strong in Biology? Do we actually need five hours to find out if a student is good at History? Does this represent how modern societies function?
Beyond the amount of time spent, I am also wondering about the skills needed to perform well on exams. Looking at the IB Approaches to Learning (ATLs: thinking skills, communication skills, social skills, self-management skills, and research skills) I am curious about which of these are really enhanced during the IB exams.
I would offer that those ATLs can be developed and assessed through final projects in a more authentic manner. Furthermore, those skills have been developed throughout the years leading up to the final exams. To me, the main skills needed to do well on final exams are test-taking skills, such as being organized, reading instructions carefully, using time wisely, responding clearly, etc. What I find interesting is that the majority of those test-taking skills are small manifestations of the ATLs in the very particular, narrow context of an exam situation. But those ATLs can be developed and assessed in a more significant way.
I have heard people counter that taking final exams is part of the learning process. But is it really? If final exams have a formative dimension, then we need to provide feedback on those tasks. Schools have a certain freedom to adapt their exam calendars to allow for this. At Academia Cotopaxi, we have moved the High School final exam week a few days back to allow teachers and students to connect and put student learning back at the center of the final exam process.
However, with formal examination boards, such as the IB, students will not receive feedback but only a number two months later. More than being part of the learning process, final exams now seem more like a ritual that we continue to impose on our children.
Let’s follow Simon Sinek’s lead and let’s Start with Why we are doing this.
When caught in my blue-sky thinking, I am picturing end-of-year exams in a different light. Allowing extra time, preferential seating, and larger examination papers are not good enough anymore. Within certain parameters set up by schools and/or examination boards, students could design their own final exams or assessment tasks in consultation with their teachers.
For some students, their Math exams could be very practical, but for some others it could be more theoretical. This could also lead to more meaningful transdisciplinary projects. As long as students demonstrate what they learned, the way in which they do this seems to matter less.
Many schools attempt to develop differentiated exams and projects, but as soon as we are dealing with external examination boards we are back to the traditional sit-down exams. What steps do we need to take to operate such a paradigm shift from traditional exams to individualized, culminating tasks?
Fred is IB Diploma Coordinator and ToK teacher at Academia Cotopaxi American International School in Quito, Ecuador.

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09/14/2021 - Anju
I recently tried making examination as a celebration. The question paper was sent home, Once the question paper got over,, the marking scheme was sent home..
01/21/2017 - Mrslim
Projects work well for disciplines and units with limited content and a small number of well defined skills. Picture elementary and some facets of middle school. Other disciplines that are content heavy do not fit a project based model, no matter how well the people on the seminar circuit try to make it sound like the new "sliced bread". To become a critical thinker you must have a broad base of knowledge to base your critical appraisal of the new content you are learning. You cannot use 2 weeks to do a project for students to learn the concept of standards of measuring.
01/20/2017 - brmichael
Surely it is time we take the concept of "continuous assessment" more seriously? On a bad day, a good student may not perform as well as s/he would normally do. Perhaps bodies like the IB, IGCSE and others could explore this option more fully? Exams can only test so much in a relatively short time. As teachers , we need to ask ourselves whether we are teaching to the exam or whether we equipping students with the necessary skills to cope with 21st century living to become "life-long " learners. Sadly, there has been no alternative found as yet to replace the exam system. At the school where I teach in Thailand, the kids are sitting exams from year 1 up to year 12. They have regular "tests" every two weeks in every academic subject. Subject teaching is the norm in the primary school from Grade 1. This system sets kids up to learn"facts" but does not give them the skills of interpretation and reasoning.It teaches them to "rote learn" and not discovery things through meaningful tasks which encourage thinking and questioning. I believe exams could be replaced by research projects and meaningful extended essays and such like instruments of assessment. Exams results do not necessarily reflect the potential of some students. I have seen many "straight 'A" students bomb out of College and University because they are insufficiently prepared for these institutions.
01/20/2017 - Paul
I am sympathetic to Fred's general tone in questioning the appropriateness of the archaic testing schedule that is imposed by the IB program. However, it seems to me that this does serve a purpose in the real world in imposing pressure on a person to think quickly when it comes to a crisis. If there is a plane crash and the doctor has not experienced the pressure to think quickly in an organized fashion (the very conditions imposed by written exams lasting several hours) I am sure that s/he will be unfamiliar with how to proceed. In some cases we can reproduce these conditions in the lab, but only insofar as to setting up the context for the student. I hate to be the one to point this out, but the former student is going to need to set up his/her own context in such a situation.



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