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An Effective Use of the History Examination

A. CURTIS WILGUS, M. A., TEACHING FELLOW IN HISTORY, THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA.

T

HE examination, in the educational system today, is, figuratively speaking, an anti-toxin. When administered wisely it is a great benefit to the pupil, but when used unwisely it becomes an evil, and is therefore dangerous.

Let us note briefly how the examination is used at the present time in the majority of schools. The teacher, in giving an examination, aims to find out just how much the pupils know. "But know of what?" the selfanalyzing teacher enquires. "I ask questions which I feel sure that the pupils can answer, for it would be hardly fair to ask them for information about subjects that have not been previously discussed or assigned. Further, I ask for facts which are important for the pupils to know and remember. Sometimes I give examinations to determine the grade to mark the pupil, or," adds the honest teacher, "I give them an examination to kill time, without expecting to correct the papers." And perhaps this last reason is more common than we care to admit.

Is there any conscientious teacher who really believes, deep down in her soul, that she can mark the examination papers of a class-especially if she has a goodly number and the answers are long-using the same standard for all? One easily becomes fatigued correcting a large number of papers, and when one stops the task to rest, the standard of grading has usually "slipped" up or down. Moreover, teachers are often influenced by reading the papers of the best pupils first and grading the others accordingly, or vice versa, for it is practically impossible not to judge the rest of the class by the extremes rather than by the means, which in the latter case is the average pupil. How much then are these examinations trustworthy in showing the true merit and ability

of the student? In reality the teacher is giving herself a grade upon her ability to judge that of the pupil.

Again, if the teacher has been conscientious in her classroom work and has observed the pupils carefully, as she must needs do day by day, it is hard to conceive how one would need an examination, as such, to determine the pupil's mastery of the subject. Unless the class is exceptionally large, which is not usually the case in secondary schools, the teacher will have all of this particular knowledge regarding each pupil.

The question has often been asked, whether examinations are a true test of ability, and therefore whether they are reliable. For example, the pupils in a given class are told that they will be quizzed on six questions the following day, covering what has been assigned since the last examination or test, perhaps six weeks ago. The teacher picks out what she considers to be six important questions, for, of necessity, she is the sole judge of their importance. The pupils, in the meantime, are feverishly reviewing, and perhaps nine times out of ten, cramming. Some perhaps have tried to anticipate what will be asked by selecting what to them seem to be the important points likely to be discussed.

Of course,

it is only luck if any one happens to choose the identical six which the teacher has selected. Thus, the students come to class the next day feeling that they are playing a game of chance with the teacher with success for the lucky, and the more questions that they can answer the better. But what of those who have prepared themselves on the wrong questions? And what about the ones who have said, "Oh, well, since it is a case of luck whether I happen to hit the right ones or not, why review at all, for I shall probably be able to do just as well?" Let the teacher remember her school days, for how many, especially those who are new to the subject they teach, would care to take such an examination? And, suppose that such a quiz was "sprung" without warning, as is often the case, upon unsuspecting victims! How much is this, then, a test of ability, and to what extent is it to be relied upon to determine the standing of pupils? What

consequently, is the pupil's attitude towards examinations as they are commonly used today?

All teachers at one time in their lives have been students in schools and have been required to take examinations. As a rule we hated them, and why? Mainly for the reason that they were inconvenient and bothersome. Some could never write an examination well, for they became habitually excited and consequently confused. Of course, on the other hand, there were those who were not bothered by an examination in any form, and perhaps even enjoyed them. But, in truth, what percentage of the whole did the latter form? Certainly a small fraction. And if we had ever known that a teacher was giving examinations to kill time, which we could often guess, we should have complained a great deal about writing them. If such feelings were common then, is it not true that they may be found now among the present generation of pupils?

So far the history examination has not been definitely referred to but what has been said applies to that subject as much, if not more, than it does to many others. In the average history class of the secondary school today, does one find the examination being given for the pupil's benefit or for the teacher's? I have known of history teachers giving examinations as a punishment because of lack of visible studying on the part of the pupils. In this case the questions are usually unfair, and more so when the examination is unannounced to the class. As a result, that desirable sympathetic feeling between teacher and pupils tends to disappear. Instead of working with the students the teacher is working against them and thus antagonizes them.

When the examination is used by the teacher in such ways as have been suggested above there accrue many undesirable results. Some of these are cramming, which is a "process of mental feeding neither preceded by appetite nor followed by digestion," as an acquaintance of mine has aptly said; dishonesty, that is, cheating and deceitfulness; irregular work, laziness, useless memorizing, the formation of wrong judgment, unwise study, mental and nervous disturbances, and above all, complaint about

the teacher and her methods. To the thoughtful student of the examination system as it is today, these effects are self-evident, and since they have been discussed so fully by others nothing more than a recapitulation is necessary here.

Turning now to a more effective use of the examination, which it is believed will be found more efficient and of greater benefit to both teacher and pupil, let us picture an imaginary American history class in the average secondary school. The subject is taught here throughout the whole year. For our purpose it makes little difference whether this period is divided into quarters or semesters, but, for the sake of argument, we shall decide upon the latter plan. At the end of each semester the school authorities require that an examination shall be given. Our imaginary teacher is not a believer in the use of the examination as cited above, but has ideas of her own regarding its use and is determined to try them out, at the same time obeying the rule in regard to the final semester examination and an additional one, that from time to time short "tests" are to be employed.

At the beginning of school, when the teacher explains how the course will be conducted, and shows the pupils how to keep notə books, etc., she tells them that at the end of every two weeks a short test or quiz will be given as a means of review, and that it will not count for much in the way of affecting their standings— for the papers will be marked "passing" or "failing"-unless their class standing is low, in which case more weight will be placed upon the test papers of those who are low in their grades. Consequently at the end of the first two weeks of actual teaching and class work, the teacher passes around test papers and asks the pupils to answer a few questions, probably not more than five, bringing out the most important points discussed in the past two weeks. After the test is finished, the papers are collected by the teacher, who sees that all are correctly dated, and arranges them in alphabetical order by names, filing them away for future reference. Some time before the next recitation the teacher goes over the papers, looking to see whether any of the pupils have failed to answer any of the questions, and getting a general idea

of the character of the answers. On the following day, at the beginning of the history recitation period, she takes up each question separately, answering it carefully, giving the pupils a chance to ask any questions that may be suggested, and stating whether any papers are marked as failing, and if so, whose, and for what reason. This last, however, need not be done before the whole class, but at another time, if it be made clear that all those who do not hear from the teacher in regard to their papers shall understand that they have passed.

Following out this example, then, a test is given at the end of each two-week period succeeding, the papers all being filed away, those of each pupil being placed together, dated, and kept in alphabetical arrangement. If the teacher thinks best, the questions asked may be only upon the period of the two weeks immediately preceding, or if of sufficient importance, upon an earlier previous period. As in the first instance, the teacher places no marks upon the subsequent papers other than the words "passing" and "failing." When the end of the semester arrives the teacher announces that a final examination will be given, covering only what has been taken up in the past tests and the important points of the last two-week period which has just ended. She explains that the pupils need not worry, since the most important points of the various two-week periods-which were emphasized as of the most importance when they were discussed-will be asked. Of course, by this procedure the scope and number of questions to be given on the examination is greatly limited and the pupils need only to review these, with the aid of their papers, which the teacher hands back shortly before the examination. The incentive for cramming is therefore done away with, as is also cheating, and with the constant repetition of the important points only an extremely dull pupil will need to review to any great extent.

It has been seen that in this method of giving tests or examinations only the important points are stressed-those which it is desirable and beneficial for the pupil to remember. As a result the pupil will get a great deal more out of the history lesson and remember more of what has been studied. A few high places,

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