YOU HAVE TO GIVE students the exam question – sometimes

Sometimes it’s best to tell students what’s in the test.

Summative assessment is important. Differing greatly from formative assessment, which focuses more on an immediately taught concept, summative assessment checks whether students have learnt the topic to such a depth that they can produce responses based on any number of aspects taught. But there’s a hidden price!

The repercussion of this design is that most students sitting their Literature exams will experience the questions to be variations on what they expected and indeed prepared for. I expect that this applies to most subjects, but as an English teacher, I’ve found that most will still produce good responses and demonstrate a good knowledge of the texts and their themes and characters, but their responses will effectively become their first and only expositions.

Even if students are well prepared and their knowledge of a text is secure, the working memory will still be on overdrive if the question in front of them requires an adaptation of their rehearsed flow.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 8.14.40 pm
from @Olicav:

Of course, we want to see students adapting and applying knowledge to suit new contexts, but there’s no getting away from the fact that because of the potential cognitive overload, the exam product is likely to be an inferior representation of the student’s actual ability. The more the working memory is stressed in this moment, the greater the separation from potential.

Oliver Caviglioli’s infographics are very useful in helping explain Sweller’s cognitive load theory.

So despite summative assessment being important, its downside is that it is unlikely to be the setting for students to imaginatively explore an essay question, and therefore, due to the inexorable pressure of time, unless I provide other opportunities for them to edit a piece of work, they won’t ever get to develop and pursue imaginative responses to questions.

This is why during a unit I give students the title of the essay question before the assessment date, with class time to prepare for it. In this way, students can prepare and explore thoughts about a line of argument in depth, receiving feedback on their thinking and essay structure. For some, who work hard and put in the effort, the assessment sitting is actually the 3rdattempt at the question, which yields significantly better results compared to the first draft. For these students:

  • They get to fulfil a potential that would ordinarily be denied to them with the submission of a single draft.
  • They get to use their imaginations in writing a response.
  • They get to experience the best part of being an English student.


I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on twitter @edmerger


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