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The Ugh of Exam Questions

Examination questions, the ultimate location of institutional power, identify the boundaries of the discipline, and define what is permissible to "discuss," as they so invitingly and misleadingly put it (Belsey 428).

"Mom, she's doing it again!"...Yes, I am. I'm going to link yet another quote from one of our readings to teaching. I can't help it. (See my other blogs: Teaching with a Critical Awareness and Play the Game). Catherine Belsey raises a good point when she questions the authority of examination questions on a topic in her essay "Literature, History, and Politics." As teachers, we need to be careful when we formulate exam questions because those questions will inevitably be taken by our students as a reference to the all-important meaning of the text. We need to be careful, because, as literary critics, we know there is not one single all-important meaning, but several possibilities, and, if these possibilities are well supported, they may make valid arguments, even when they conflict with one another. However, while I do recognize this need to be careful when formulating an examination question, this does not mean that I think examination questions should be abandoned. No, as teachers, especially at the high school level which is were I plan to teach, we need to provide our students with both freedom and guidance. Thus, we need to make sure our question prompts are not too limiting and we might even give our students the opportunity to write a few papers about a text with no specific prompt at all. While I think I was very blessed in high school for the most part in terms of my English teachers, I've heard horror stories from others about paper assignments where they had to write about the thematic topic of ambition in Macbeth when they really wanted to write a paper on the supernatural elements in the play instead. To me, as long as the student properly supports his or her arguments, both papers could turn out well. Hopefully, as a teacher I will be able to keep an open mind when it comes to creating question prompts and paper assignments so I don't hinder my students creative ideas. It's these creative ideas that will help them grow--they'll learn much more from developing an argument they've come up with all by themselves as opposed to an argument I think is right or important. Furthermore, I'll get much more interesting and diverse papers to grade, which is a plus for me :)

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Comments (2)

Bethany Merryman:

Although I am not going to become a teacher, I respect and agree with what you are saying throughout this blog. The questions on a test are so important. I had one of those teachers in high school that gave the "right" answers.

Although I agree there is a necessity for students to be tested on literature just as in any other subject. I think if teachers are able to test and quiz on aspects that are fact, it will do the job in determining whether the student does the work, but doesn't take away from their creativity in analyzing literature. Sort of like what Dr. McClain does by quizzing us on our readings. Would you agree?

I completely agree, Bethany. While quizzes like McClain's may be necessary to hold students accountable for the reading, there is little value in them beyond that. I don't know if you are familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy, but this model is references a lot in education classes. Bloom organizes the levels of thinking into the following taxonomy: (from the lowest levels of thinking to the highest) knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Your argument that limiting exam questions hinder creativity in analyzing literature accords with the problem these questions present when viewed through the lens of Blooms Taxonomy; questions such as those we face on McClain's quizzes do not ascend the ladder to higher levels of thinking, but function at the basic levels of knowledge and comprehension. As a teacher, this prompts the question, "How much time do we spend on these basic levels?" College professors often complain that freshmen seem unprepared for the higher level of thinking required in a college class, and this could be the result of too much time spent in the high school classroom on lower levels, such as knowledge and comprehension. It seems to me, especially in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind, teachers at the high school level are being forced to function primarily at basic levels in order to prepare their students for standardardized tests (which focus primarily on knowledge and comprehension) that they must pass to graduate, for the school to gain funding, etc. To wrap up my rant, there seems to be no easy answer to this problem. As teachers we need to focus on the lower levels of thinking to make sure our students have a sound foundation that they can build upon; however, it seems to me that many high school teachers don't have the time to build anything beyond this foundation. And what's the point of building a foundation, if it's never used as a standing point for something greater? A foundation alone is useless; we seem to be stopping at the starting point if we don't progress further than foundations in our education.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 19, 2009 11:35 PM.

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