by freshman Arman Azad
It is a cold day in the middle of December, the last day before winter break at Flint Hill School, and Robin Goldstein wakes up to the startling sight of a shattered window lying beside her car. As she opens the door, the Upper School French and Journalism teacher sees glass fragments scattered across her seat. On a normal day, this would be bad, depressing, and frightening, but today is exam day, and she is not off to a good start.
Goldstein’s exam day doesn’t start off that way every year, and really any other year, but nevertheless an examination can be just as stressful for her and those administering it as it is for those taking it. Students often lament about workload, homework, and preparation (or lack thereof), but what many do not realize is the fact that teachers feel the same pressure, many times amplified exponentially. Not only do teachers have to prepare for the actual exam, but they must also worry about relieving the students’ stress, managing their workload, and preparing them for the exam.
Goldstein said, “I look at everything that I have taught, or at least planned to teach before the exam would take place. And by that, then I decide, given the vocabulary, given the grammar, how I’m going to ask the questions, and I try to ask the type of questions that they [students] have seen in class: whether it’s grammar, vocabulary, a reading passage, or a writing sample. After I make the exam, I make a review sheet based off the exam and I list every topic that I’m going to ask about, what page they can find that topic on, and examples of the questions that they will be asked.”
As she teaches new material, Goldstein must also prepare her students for their upcoming exam. Not only does she have to make sure her students learn the current information she is teaching, but she must also strengthen previous material. For Goldstein, her students’ stress sometimes rubs off on her.
“It’s a high-stakes time, so I mean there is always going to be stress in the air. I wouldn’t say that I’m stressed because I know I would be a lot more stressed if I were taking the exam, but I do stress about things such as am I asking the right questions so that my students can do the best that they can, and it’s a busy time; in the middle of the normal load of teaching, lesson planning, and grading, you have to make this exam,” said Goldstein.
Students have to balance day-to-day work with exam preparations just as much as teachers do. Teachers make homework assignments, students do them, teachers design and assign projects, students create them, teachers grade work, kids complain about them; it is indeed a never-ending cycle. Students do indeed spend a lot of time studying for exams, but teachers spend almost as much, if not more time, preparing.
When asked how long it takes her to make the exam, Goldstein’s eyes widened as she sighed, “A long time.”
For Karen Davis, an Upper School English teacher, creating her exams is a multi-step process.
She said, “To create the exam, I work on a team of three teachers who teach the same class, and we have to have an exam that is 80% common between the three of us. So it really takes a lot of time to prep for that and come up with the ideas. We started in a Google Doc and we shared old exams and ideas we had for tweaking it for this year, because every year is different. Last year we taught a novel that wasn’t taught this year. So you might be working on information that you had from previous years, but you’re always working on improving it and making it new for this year.”
Although kids may say that exam creation isn’t difficult because teachers can reuse exams, that simply is not true. If the same information was taught every year, and the class were exactly the same every year, teachers would have to do no preparation: not only for exams, but also for the entire course. That isn’t the case, however. Educators must continually work to improve their class in order to teach the most relevant, useful information. Because every year is different, every exam must be different as well.
The exam process for students changes as well. This year, a major revision was the decision to put student in classrooms, rather than the gym, to take their tests. In previous years, all students, with the exception of those who use the Learning Center, fit into the gym and took their exams in one large room. For some students, this helped them because they were free to ask questions and their teacher was right there in the room with them. For others, the gym had a stigma attached to it: The room was a frightening and intimidating experience. With this change, it will be slightly more difficult for students to ask their teachers questions, but the English Department believes they have the solution figured out.
Davis said, “The classes for each teacher are grouped on a hall, so if I’m giving my exam to my four classes, they’re all going to be next to each other. Each of those rooms has a proctor, but I am stationed outside those rooms. So if doors are open, I can keep an eye on the two rooms I can see. I did this last year because the English Department piloted it. You put yourself in the hall, and watch two rooms. You can see inside. Then I have my computer open, and the proctor emails any time a student needs to ask a question.”
In the past, teachers would use a similar email system when the previous Learning Center students had questions. Teachers would have computer monitors in the gym, and a proctor would email them when a student in the Learning Center had a question. Davis said she would always wear tennis shoes on exam day because of the ample amount of walking she had to do. Now, with the new format, she does not have to move back and forth between the gym and classrooms to answer questions.
Davis, who prefers the classrooms, said, “I think putting kids in classes puts you in a smaller group, so its less intimidating and allows the teacher to communicate with those classes effectively if there are questions because you really are in one hall. I really do [prefer exams to be in classes]. I think it’s a kinder, gentler way of taking exams. It focuses me as a teacher in one small space, so that’s good.”
Davis also had some tips for effective studying: First, she believes that speaking to teachers and asking them questions is extremely effective. Secondly, and more importantly, she believes in effective study habits:
“I would say start studying a little bit every night at least a week out, maybe even two weeks. If your teachers have given you exam guides, then you should review it repeatedly. It is the looping back through the information multiple times that helps it stick in your brain, and then you don’t have to think about it so hard because you know you have seen it. If I review my English flashcards seven times before the exam, then I’m well prepared and I won’t get nervous.”
She continued, “A lot of students say they can’t do that -- they need to cram the night before, but studies have shown that you remember information when you see it repeatedly...Study in chunks, little bits along the way!”
Research does back up her point. Medical professionals and those dealing with the science of learning have long believed that spacing is a much better study method than cramming.
Dr. William Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University wrote in Psychology Today, “In most situations, research has made it abundantly clear that spacing the learning over many shorter sessions is much more effective than trying to do it all in one big session.”
Exams can be a stressful time for teachers, but they can also be easy. For Goldstein, she tries to make the day go by as smoothly as possible.
She said, “I need to get there early enough to get all those exams out and to get a little snack for my students to eat along the way. I’ve already double-checked to make sure I have the right amount of copies, that everything is well copied and there is nothing fuzzy on the exams at all. But really, I know how stressed my students are; I know that they are going to be running to me before the exam with last minute questions. I can only hope that they have prepared themselves as well as I hope I’ve prepared them.”
The next time students sit down to take their exams, they should think about the effort that went into making them. They should think about the countless hours their teachers put into not only teaching them the material, but also reinforcing it. They should think about the stress teachers face when students are stressed. They should think not about a teacher trying to make them fail, but instead trying to make them succeed.