Test obsession and Test Anxiety

Tests anxiety

“We live in a test conscious and test giving culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance”

Sarason, Davidson, & Lighthall

What’s interesting about this statement is, it was first published in 1960 and was based on students in the US, yet would not seem out of place in describing the situation in the UK.  The UK, as with so many other things has unfortunately caught up with the US and become a nation that tests and measures…everything.

Where a person’s worth is judged only by the tests they have passed it is perhaps not surprising that examination success has become so important and test anxiety increased.

But it’s not just the UK, this is a global obsession, take China for example where the pressure to succeed has become so intense that cheating in the Gaokao, the nation’s A-Chinese-invigilator-sca-010university entrance exam is a major problem. The government has not been slow to react and for the first time anyone found cheating will face a possible seven year jail sentence. In Ruijin, east China’s Jiangxi Province, invigilators use instruments to scan students’ shoes before they entered the exam hall, while devices to block wireless signals are also used to reduce the opportunity to cheat.

Test anxiety or stress

Stress is a broad term that is experienced when you find yourself in adverse or demanding circumstances, sitting an exam perhaps. Test anxiety is a situation specific type of stress, experienced by people who find examinations threatening. Recently, there has been an increased interest in exam stress and test anxiety in the UK and a need for it to be given closer academic scrutiny.

The research so far shows that test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance. And this is the issue, are students underperforming in examinations, which as stated above can have a significant impact on their lives not because of their lack of knowledge or even their ability to apply knowledge, but simply because the medium used to assess them is an exam.

In simple terms test anxiety effects exams results and exam results play a major part in people’s lives.

There are three components of test anxiety (Zeidner 1998)

  • Cognitive – the negative thoughts you can have during tests e.g. “if I fail this I will fail all my examinations” and the performance limiting difficulties experienced as a result of anxiety e.g. inability to read questions clearly or solve problems.
  • Affective – physical symptoms e.g. trembling, tension etc.
  • Behavioural – test anxiety creates an environment that encourages students to avoid studying or best delay it.

The reason people develop test anxiety is thought to be rooted in certain social issues e.g. how you are judged by others and the fear of failure in the public domain. It may also be related to the type of anxiety people experience when they have to make a best man’s speech, for example. Another aspect is that it is not always what others think, but what you think of yourself that is the issue and so the expectation of exam failure could impact on an individual’s ego and self-esteem.

Phase one is OK BUT

I think in the UK we are through the worst part of this, let’s call it phase one, and by that I mean we know that examinations and testing are not the answer, and that people are not their exam result. We have learned this the hard way by producing groups of exam qualified students, releasing them into the world of work, ill prepared to cope with the demands of the workplace. In addition, we have developed helpful techniques that enable people to better cope with test anxiety. Some of these I have discussed in previous blogs, Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse, Exam stress – Mindfulness and the “7/11” to name but two.

BUT………we still have some way to go with phase two, which involves answering the question, what do we replace exams with if they are so bad? And until we solve that, helping good people perform in the system we have just now is the best we can do.

 

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So you want to be an astronaut – assessment for astronauts

 

Astronaut-Tim-Peake-Dials-Wrong-Phone-Number-from-Space

Your there by yourself. There’s no doctor, there’s no computer engineer – so you have to learn all of these skills. Tim Peake

What is the purpose of assessment?

In order to gain a better understanding of the assessment process for astronauts, let’s ask a more basic question first, what is an assessment and what does it prove?

At one level it is simply a measurement of performance benchmarked against a given outcome or standard. The results can, help a teacher identify progress so they can adapt the next lesson, or give assurance an individual is capable of performing a particular task. This is probably the most important type of assessment for astronauts.   Modern high stakes “examinations however play another role; they offer the student a transferable badge of honour that can help open doors to better career prospects and increased salary. If you doubt the importance of this last point, click this link to read about the level of corruption in India and the lengths people will go in order to obtain a certificate saying they have passed an exam.

Employability gap – so what’s the problem?

However examinations on their own do not provide a guarantee that the individual who passes will be able to do the job.  And it is here where the disconnect becomes clear. Often the method of assessment is not based on what the student will be doing in the work place, and even if it is, it is not set in the same context. Many believe this gap has become ever wider as more and more students come out of school/university lacking the skills required by the employer.

But should the exam/assessment be changed to narrow the gap or is it the role of the employer to provide the necessary “on the job” education in the work place? However the problem with the employer being given the responsibility, it implies that what you study doesn’t matter, only that you do. This just seems wasteful, wasteful of time, money and effort. Assessment must get closer to measuring the skills required for one simple reason, what gets measured gets achieved, a cliché for sure but a true one.

Assessment for astronauts

Costs – The costs involved in training astronauts is a bit unclear, NASA will pay Russia $70m for a seat on Russian space craft in 2017 that includes training, figures of around $25m are also cited, Tim Peaks training was quoted as £16m so very similar.

Basic requirements – Mission Specialist (non pilots – most are pilots with a military background) include the following:

  1. Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. The degree must be followed by at least three years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience.
  2. Ability to pass a NASA space physical, which is similar to a military or civilian flight physical.
  3. Height between 58.5 and 76 inches.

Training – Tim Peak’s education started in 2008 when he was selected by ESA (European space agency) from 8,413 applicants. Tests at this stage included, intelligence, spatial awareness and concentration. Then for the 10 selected another 18 months of intense training followed, this time on topics as wide ranging as space law, rocket propulsion, spaceflight engineering and the hardest for Tim, learning to speak Russian. He was also subject to one week’s caving in Sardinia, Italy, with five other astronauts to simulate what it would be like in space, this was to build teamwork, problem solving and cope with poor hygiene facilities. Then it was one year of advanced training, including working underwater to simulate the lack of gravity. In 2013 it was time to go into space for the first time, this was the last test before being selected and then finally in 2015 Tim was allowed to do the job for real. In all it had taken 6/7 years.

What have we learned?

Clearly you need some underpinning academic skills i.e. a degree but a relevant one. The training is provided by the state, the argument being that it is for the greater good of society so the costs should be met by the tax payer. An interesting point for those that believe this should be the case for all education. But most importantly the assessments were all built around making sure that when Tim got into the space he could do the job. Very few of the tests required a piece of paper and a desk, and many were simulations of what he would meet in the real world.

Given the advances in technology the time is now right to introduce more simulations into the exam room, not so we can all become astronauts but to help prepare the next generation for the work place.

And just imagine your badge of honour when going for that next job – “what exams have you passed” “oh a few, but did I mention I was an astronaut…..”

 

Are exams fit for purpose (part two) – what are the alternatives?

You dont fatten pigs 2

Last month’s blog came to the conclusion that examinations* are fit for purpose or at least “a purpose.”

They provide the student with a clear objective to which they can direct their efforts and focus attention and are a transferable measure of competency that can be assessed at scale. The “at scale” point is important as there are many ways of assessing competence but few that can cope with the need to test thousands of students all at the same time.

The main problem with examinations is that they don’t always examine what is most valued; the method of assessment often has significant limitations as to what it actually tests and the results are presented in league tables that give a far too simplistic view of success.

I am not sure we can resolve all of these but it might be worth exploring other options, specifically alternative methods of assessment. For example If you change the method of assessment from a formal, often timed written exam to say a portfolio of work, not only do you change the method of assessment but you will change what is being examined, two birds with one stone perhaps.

Different methods of assessing competence

Open book exams

Open book assessment offers a way of testing application rather than memory. Students have access to a text book that contains information relevant to what they are being asked. It’s the use of knowledge that is important, not the knowledge itself. The idea of open book could easily be adapted, why not allow students access to the internet during the exam, they could look up anything they wanted. Is this not more representative of what happens in the real world?

Take out exams

Similar to the above the so called “take out exam” allows the student to take the exam away to work on at home using whatever resources they prefer, books, internet etc. They return the next day with a completed answer. This can work better than you might at first think so long as you have a robust mechanism to detect plagiarism. There are several very good software packages that can spot the most sophisticated types of copying.

Case studies/simulations

A case study provides an environment for the student to demonstrate they can use their knowledge to solve problems and or offer advice in a virtual world. Most case studies tend to be written but this is one area that we could see some clever and affordable use of technology to better simulate the real world.

Performance tests

In a performance test students are required to demonstrate a skill/process, create a product etc while being observed by the assessor who will evaluate the performance. A great example of testing ability to apply knowledge but suffers from the subjectivity of the assessor and has limited application at scale.

Portfolios

Portfolios are most often collections of the student’s work that demonstrate their ability to perform a specific task. These can be simulations of the real world or portfolios of work actually undertaken on the job. A portfolio can include written documents, emails, audio or video recordings, in fact anything that provides evidence as required by the assessor.   Portfolios are perfect for assessing application but the process of assessment is expensive and not without bias.

Viva Vocal – (living voice) Oral exam

Often used to test PhD students, an oral exam gives the assessor chance to question the student. This is a very effective method where you are looking for higher level skill and depth of understanding. As identified last month it’s probably one of the oldest forms of assessment.

Digital badges – capturing the learning path

Being awarded a badge as recognition of achievement is something many will be familiar with especially if you were a boy scout or girl guide. But digital badging is new and becoming increasingly popular because of the internet. A good example would be linkedin and the badges awarded to you by others as recognition of certain skills.  Many of the assessment methods above provide a first past the post type of assessment, you pass and that’s it. Digital badging on the other hand is a form of lifelong assessment that evolves along with your career.

Digital badging for me is one of the most exiting forms of assessment and I am not alone Nasa have been using digital badging since 2011. Read more about digital badging.

Assessment in the future

Scanning for competenceThe list above is far from comprehensive and many other equally valid types of assessment exist e.g.  Role plays, Slide presentations, Assignments etc but what might assessment look like 15 years from now. Well how about using MRI scans to identify which parts of the brain are being used?  Not sure it will catch on but it would provide some interesting evidence as to how the student is getting to the answer, simple memory or a genuine and deep understanding .

*Examinations defined as a written test administered to assess someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skills

Are exams fit for purpose? (part one)

take-the-same-testI have written in the past about what passing an exam proves but have never questioned if exams achieve what they were originally designed to do, are they fit for purpose?

Firstly let me define what I mean by an exam. A written test administered to assess someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skill that results in a qualification if successful. This is in contrast to a test which is a method of assessing someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skill often as part of a course in order to provide feedback. A test does not have to be written. Although exams don’t have to be written either, many are and initially at least I would like to keep the definition as narrow as possible.

In order to answer the question, are exams fit for purpose we must first take a step back and look at how we got to where we are now.

 

A brief history of examinations

The first standardised test is believed to have been introduced by the Chinese in 606 AD to help select candidates for specific governmental positions. However most examinations around this time would have been oral, requiring the candidate to recite a dissertation or answer questions. Although there is evidence of written exams being used as early as 1560*, it was not until the 1820’s that many Universities began to adopt the practice. From 1850 onwards the written exam became the norm in most UK Universities. In 1854 under the Gladstone government selection of Civil servants was based on their ability to pass an exam, this time however it was written.

Bureaucracy – In 1917 to help bring some order to what had been described as chaotic the Certificate and the Higher School Certificate were introduced. Then in 1951 we had the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations, more commonly known as Ordinary ‘O’ level and Advanced ‘A’ level , these were normally taken at 16 and 18.

In the 1960’s the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) was born, opening up qualifications for all, not just those that went to Grammar school. However this two tier system was thought divisive and so in 1988 under the guidance of the then Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph both sets of examinations were replaced by the GCSE. The GCSE was graded and contained credit for course work.  In 1991 the General National Vocational Qualifications, (GNVQS) were established intended to incorporate both academic and vocational elements, by 1995 these were accepted as ‘equivalent’ to GCSE.

In 2014 we find change again, gone is the course work and written examinations once again become the main method of assessment, although there will be grading, 1 to 9 with 9 being the higher mark. The exams will still be called GCSE’s, although officially they are known as GCSE (England). This is to avoid confusion with Wales and Northern Ireland, who are not changing.

Yes they are

Historically at least it would appear the purpose of the exam was to provide a recognised and transferable measure of competency in a given subject or discipline. The lack of transparency and consistency of the oral exam resulted in them being replaced with written ones and a more formal bureaucratic structure was developed to administer the process.

And in many ways there is very little wrong with this.

The problem is not with the exam itself, but with what is being examined. If as a society we value “thinking and creativity” for example, then should we not be examining these rather than subjects that require the candidate to do little more than rote learn facts.  Perhaps we should explore different methods of assessment, the written exam has its uses but hand written papers are looking increasingly outdated in a world that communicates electronically not only in short texts and tweets but with video and photos . In addition the way exam results are used in league tables to show winners and losers is divisive. It looks like a measure but has in fact become a target that schools and teachers must hit or be considered failures.

Please watch this it’s very funny…..and thought provoking

Not on the test

 

 

 

 

 

In the second blog about exams I want to look more closely at some of these points, in particular what other ways we can assess what people know.

*Assessment around this time was through debate between a number of learned people all at the same time and lasting for two hours or more.

Teaching to the test – Interesting research but the fat lady is still in good voice

Fat lady still singingThis week researchers from the University of East Anglia released some very interesting findings that resulted from testing 594 bio-science students in their first week of term at five universities.

The students selected would be considered by many more than competent in their subject, almost all had a grade A*, A or B in biology at A-level. Yet when they were given 50 minutes to answer 38 multiple choice questions on cells, genetics, biochemistry and physiology from their A level core syllabus, they only got 40% correct. The period of time between the students sitting their A levels and the test was three months.

Lead researcher for the study, Dr Harriet Jones, said: “What our research shows is that students are arriving at university with fantastic A-level grades, but having forgotten much of what they actually learned for their exams.”  She went on to say that the trend to teach to the test, to ensure good results for schools’ reputations, was the problem.

The schools are to blame then

The facts of the research are clear, students who had successfully passed a test, were unable to pass a similar test three months later. The conclusion reached is that the students did not understand (see my blog on understanding) their subject well enough and passed their A levels probably using little more than memory. And who is to blame, the schools of course, for teaching to the test. Why the school do this is worthy of further debate, but government pressure and the impact of league tables will certainly be in the mix.

But do employers not accuse Universities of delivering up similar ill prepared students. The test is different but from the employers perspective the result is the same. A University student who professes to know something but when tested “in the real world” doesn’t.

Does this mean that Universities are also teaching to the test!

It’s about the test etc

The problem is not in teaching to the test; the problem is with the test, the pass mark and possibly the marking. If the test was more Testing but for what!aligned to what the student needs to know/do at a fundamental level, the pass mark sufficiently high and the marker having some degree of autonomy to form judgements, then the results would probably be different. It could of course be that the exams are easier – Exam chief: ‘you don’t have to teach a lot’ for our tests.

The big criticism of teaching to the test is, it results in a narrowness of understanding, little in the way of depth and does not push students to think in abstract and creative ways. But if the test, which incidentally does not have to be in the exam hall or on paper/PC was able to “test” for these qualities then teaching towards it would perhaps be more acceptable.

Bottom line

Teaching to the test is unlikely to change, in fact given the popularity of league tables  in education just now it may well increase, but with more effective testing the results might be better students, happy Universities and even happier employers.

 

 

Just answer the question!!! – but how?

Last month I looked at the best way to tackle a case study, but case study is only one type of exam, what about the more traditional style of exam question?

The world is full of great advice, lose weight, exercise more, stop smoking, just answer the question ….all these statements are very clear with regard to WHAT you should do but terribly unhelpful as HOW to do it.

The reason that students fail exams is simple, every examiner since the beginning of time will have made some of these comments.

Students fail exams because?

  • They don’t know the subject – inexcusable and the only reason you should fail
  • They don’t read the questions properly – and as a result  misunderstand what was being asked
  • They don’t  manage their time – so only complete 50% of the paper
  • They don’t write good answers – true this might be due to lack of knowledge but could also be the result of not knowing how much to write

The last three of these can be overcome with the use of good exam techniques. In this blog I want to share with you two simple techniques that I think will help.

How to read questions properly – Tip one, the rule of AND

Below is an exam question worth 12 marks. You don’t need to know anything about the subject so don’t worry.

Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment and the adjusted discount rate, and explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments. (12 marks)

The rule of AND is simple, where there is an AND in the question simply put a line through the AND then make the next statement the start of a new question.

Now read the question

1. Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment. and

2. (calculate) The adjusted discount rate, and

3. Explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments.                                                                                  

There are now three questions and because we have broken it up, it is so much clearer what you have to do.  If we were really clever we might be able to guess how many marks out of 12 relate to those three questions, a tip for another day perhaps.

How to write a good answer – Tip two, Define. Explain and Illustrate

Define Explain and Illustrate is a technique to help you write more using a simple structure.

Read this question

Discuss the proposal to repurchase some of the company’s shares in the coming year using the forecast surplus cash. Other implications of share repurchase for the company’s financial strategy should also be considered. (10 marks)

Firstly Define the technical words. In this example the technical word is repurchase, so firstly we need to say what a share repurchase is.

E.g.  a share repurchase is where a company buys back its own shares and as a result reduces the number of shares available on the market.

Secondly Explain in more detail.

E.g. the share buy back has to be financed in some way so one implication is that it will result in a reduction in the company’s cash balance. It also means that because there are fewer shares, earnings per share (eps) will increase.

And lastly and in many questions most importantly, Illustrate. This could be by way of a diagram an example or by referencing to the question in more detail. The reason this is so important is that this is how you will demonstrate to the examiner that you can apply the knowledge. If you don’t understand something you will not be able to apply it. The application section of the answer will often carry the most marks.

E.g. in the example above it is clear that the company is forecasting surplus cash, i.e. they have more money in the future than they need. Leaving this money in the bank is not considered sensible partly because the level of return that can be earned from the bank will be less than the shareholders require, it can also be interpreted as a lack of ambition on the part of the Directors. Blah blah blah

Depending on the detail provided in the question this final illustration section can go on and on. How much you write will depend on the marks available.

I hope you have found these two tips helpful, if you want more in the coming months just add a comment to this blog and I will oblige.

Epic exam failure – what not to put on your exam paper

And finally a short video showing students real exam answers – funny

Click here

 

Okay kids – Just remember always sit a mock exam

Always sit a mock exam

Rolf Harris has had a very varied career, musician, singer-songwriter, composer, painter, television personality and passionate advocate of sitting a mock exam. Okay I made that last one up but Rolf did make a very good point in an interview that I think illustrates one of the main benefits of sitting a mock exam.

In his early days Rolf used to paint on a huge canvass using wallpaper brushes and rollers, and it was in front of a live TV audience with only a 5 minute slot. Many years later in an interview he was asked why he practised painting the same thing over and over again, “after all Rolf you are a very good artist” said the interviewer, Rolf replied, “yes I can paint, but I am not practising to improve my painting, I am practising to make sure I finish on time, this is live television I have to finish at exactly the right time, that’s what I am trying to learn.”

And the same applies to mock exams, you’re not sitting a mock to find out what mark you’re going to get, that’s just the by product, you’re doing it to make sure you will finish on time. Knowing all the answers is no good if you run out of time….

Reasons to sit a mock exam:

1. Practice at leaving questions and moving on. Leaving a question you can do but have spent too much time on is easier said than done, remember there are often easier marks in the first 5 minutes of the next question than in the previous one. If you sit a mock exam you can practice leaving questions, sticking exactly to the time indicated by the marks in the question.

2. It’s an opportunity – I like to think of exams as opportunities to improve, they help identify what you need to improve to be better next time. This means the more mocks you sit the better you get!

3. Helps manage ignorance – There will certainly be questions in the exam that you won’t be able to do, where you don’t know the answer. Managing ignorance is a higher level skill, it is the ability to have a go, give it your best shot, even if you don’t know, just use your common sense. You may be very surprised at your mark. Only when you sit a mock will you really force yourself to have a go.

4. Gives you an indication of the topics that you are good at and the ones you aren’t. Sometimes you think you know something but when it comes to it, like in a mock you don’t.  Don’t worry there will still be time after the mock to brush up on those “think you know areas” areas.

5. Can help you deal better with stress. If you sit a mock exam it can feel like the real thing, but it isn’t. So if you panic and lose time as a result it doesn’t matter. It gives you a chance to think how you would deal with that situation should it arise again.

The best reason

But the best part of sitting a mock exam is if the mock you sit turns out to be very similar to the real thing. What would your chances of passing be then! Mocks should always be written with an eye on what might come up.

What it is not

On the whole a mock exam is not meant to predict success or failure although many people think of it like this, only the real exam matters. So why not give it a go and sit a mock exam this time, what have you got to lose.

And finally no mention would be complete of Rolf without a chance to watch Rolf sing Two little boys. Nothing to do with exams but a classic….