Monday, 5 October 2009

The feared and much awaited exam week

Exam week is here again, the first this school year. Our Finnish high school system is quite unique compared to many others, as our school year consists of 5 grading periods, each with their own different timetable. Basically, each student chooses 6 academic subjects for each period, each of which will be studied for five 45-minute lessons per week for approximately 6-7 weeks. On top of that students can also have a varying number of optional subjects per week (eg. sports, music, ICT), for which there won't normally be any exam. Each 6-7-week period ends with an exam week, during which students take one 3-hour exam a day in one of their subjects of that period. .

From a selfish teacher's point of view the beginning of the exam week is a welcome change into the daily grind. There won't be any classes to teach, only exams to prepare and invigilate. Of course, it's stressful to see the pile of papers on your desk getting higher and higher as the week proceeds. But if you are disciplined enough you can beat it before the next grading period starts, especially since you can finish every working day at midday, and possibly even have a day or two completely off during the exam week.

Surprisingly perhaps, even most of our students like this system. They say it's better to be able to concentrate on one subject at a time, and not to have any other distracting lessons on the exam days. They do find the approaching exam week rather daunting, and many get almost burnt out during it, but still they wouldn't want it changed in any way.

From a pedagogical point of view, however, there is a serious downside to the whole system. For too many students it leads to a dangerous cycle of 'bulimic learning'. In the long run, it doesn't seem to lead to real understanding of what they are cramming a day or two before the exam, let alone any higher order critical thinking skills. We have a considerable number of students who happily sail through the lessons included in each course, only showing up physically in the classroom, but hardly doing any work. They believe it's only the exam that counts, and that studying and learning means a rushed job the night before, in a stupefied state after too many energy drinks and cups of coffee to keep awake. On the exam mornings, you would see pale and exhausted groups of students nervously waiting to get their papers in front of them to quickly regurgitate all the fragmented bits of knowledge they still manage to remember. We all know what kind of learning this represents. Can we even call it learning?

Something is badly wrong with this system. At times I feel that all our students do is sit for exams, while there is hardly any time for any learning in between. Students who fail a course, can retake the exam, but this is no more than a couple of weeks after the previous exam, during which time the students are left on their own to revise. In practice, a student - with usually rather lacking study skills anyway - cannot hope to patch up a lot for their almost non-existent knowledge in that short time. Of course, there are students who do understand the importance of consistent learning all through the course. But for a great number - boys in particular - the system allows for a happy-go-lucky, carefree attitude that unfortunately too often backfires as disappointing underachievement in the end.

Although we Finnish teachers are privileged to have the freedom the design our own course assessment,  few teachers dare to use new and innovative assessment methods. Most just repeat the same old routine, because everybody else does, possibly out of fear of protests from students, who also tend to be rather conservative and need their comfort zones. True, we do have a very clear end goal in mind - the national final exams, where students' overall knowledge in several subjects will be evaluated by the national examination board. This does have a big effect on what is taught, and how learning is assessed at the school level. Yet, nobody tells us to give a written exam after every course, but still we do. We could spend the hours set for the exam on something totally different with the group of students, if we so choose, but still we don't.

This year, I am gradually trying to move into a more balanced and continious learning process all through the period with more peer assessment and modeling of different learning strategies and what it means to really learn something. By doing project work in small groups, for example, all through the course, the dangerous bulimics will hopefully learn to plan and pace their learning to have some time for developing deeper insights into and possible connections between the subjects they have chosen. This usually means easing off the hectic rushing through all the overbloated contents of the course book. Some of that content will have to be skipped and more time to be devoted to stopping, thinking and reflecting. I honestly don't believe that I would jeopardize my students' chances to succeed in the national final exams by not covering every single page of the course book. Less with more focus, will be more, is my new mantra. I hope I won't be proved wrong!

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