The Hole In Exams

Are we missing a trick when it comes to setting exams?

Exams are a very one-sided affair.

They just ask questions.

And there is the problem. In a question driven classroom, we spend most of our teaching time encouraging children to use and apply a range of questions themselves and yet when it comes to tests and exams they never get to ask any.

In Explaining and Questioning by Trevor Kerry (2002) you will find buried deep inside the book a quote from Robert J. Sternberg who says,

Current intelligence-testing practices require examinees to answer but not to pose questions. In requiring only the answering of questions, these tests are missing a vital half of intelligence – the asking of questions.

It’s true. I can’t think of a single test or exam that I have seen in decades of teaching and revision that has ever asked students to pose their own questions so they can showcase their knowledge and understanding of higher order questions.

Imagine a set of questions that asked students to answer with questions of their own – this would give us a much more rounded picture of what they were capable of. As things stand, “a vital half intelligence” is indeed missing and represents a pretty significant hole.

Make a choice

Sometimes schools can choose which components of an assessment to enter such as whether to enter students for a science practical assessment or opt for an alternative written exam paper assessing some of the same skills.

This sounds like a reasonable choice but it still doesn’t address the fact that questions are never posed by students in an exam or in an alternative assessment model.

I really like the idea of students writing their own exam questions as this gets them to interact with the subject content on a completely different level. They become question writers and get under the bonnet of subjects and topics with more insight. They also realise how difficult it is to write a good question and take responsibility for their own learning.

I have written questions for SATs papers and different exam boards in the past and I can tell you now it is far from easy! What it does do though is give you incredible insights into the dynamics of a question and the possible responses you need to consider and factor in when writing the mark scheme.

As Corrigan and Craciun (2013) note,

Writing questions and responses combines action and reflection, providing students with a challenging and valuable learning experience.

Testing is always a learning opportunity and the act of devising questions and trying to answer them encourages students to practice retrieving information and focus on higher-order cognitive processes, like analysing and evaluating.

Arie Van Deursen has tried getting students to write their own questions, some of which could then end up in a test. He discusses example questions and then challenges students to invent their own for possible inclusion in an exam of 40 multiple choice questions using the following method:

  • Students can submit their questions until one week before the exam.
  • As a teacher I decide which (if any) of the questions I include, and whether I think changes to the questions are necessary.
  • If I include a student question, the student benefits from knowing the answer and from receiving a small bonus for submitting an included question.

This is worth trying in your own classroom.

And finally….

The default pedagogy of every test and exam across the globe is still one of question-response. It’s time to change the narrative surely so exams can also include question-question.

I don’t think we can just rely on students to give us answers in exams because this is lop-sided. We can’t assess their higher order thinking with just an answer alone. We need evidence that they can ask probing and deep questions themselves.

There is a lot of scope for pedagogies that exploit the potential value of students’ questions in exams.

I think we need to change the way we do exams so that we give students opportunities to ask questions as part of their responses but we also encourage students to craft and create their own questions as this in itself is a valuable assessment model and a window into their thinking processes.

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