You’ve got about five minutes left…

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Sean MacEntee: google exam (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve just had an exam and have some time to kill, so I thought I’d start a new post. Normally I type them up in Word and only add them here when they’re pretty much done, so I never have anything in my drafts folder. But today I’m using the university computer.

When I say I’ve just had an exam, I mean my students have, and I was babysitting supervising  sitting and watching them. Today is the first time I’ve done something a little crazy – I listened to my audiobook for about half the time. Does that seem crazy to you? I’ve heard stories of teachers supposedly supervising exams, but actually reading newspapers or marking test papers/assignments instead of watching the students. I can totally understand that. Watching students scratching away with their pens in (almost) total silence for an hour or more is incredibly boring. However, unless you keep an eye on what they’re doing, I’m pretty sure they’ll find a way to cheat. I don’t know if that sounds terribly mistrustful, does it?

It occurred to me that I’ve never had any input/training on how to administer/supervise tests/exams. Maybe that’s fine and it isn’t necessary, because, I mean, how difficult is it? We’ve taken a bunch of exams when we were students; it’s all pretty straightforward.

I thought I’d briefly describe what I do. Now that I teach in a university setting, I’m less flexible than I used to be in a language school. I try to put together the questions a couple of days before the exam date, so I can read through them with fresh eyes on the day before/of the exam. It’s really embarrassing to catch typos and questions that have more than one correct answer – unless I’ve deliberately planned it that way – when a student asks you to explain something in the middle of the exam. Plus, you’re likely to get flustered (okay, I’m likely to get flustered) and will miss the two students in the back row having a chat.

On the day itself I make enough photocopies for the students who have signed up – I check this online – and always a copy or two extra for the students who didn’t for whatever reason. I don’t have to let them take the exam if their name isn’t on the list, but I usually don’t mind.

When we’re all in the exam hall, I make sure they’re not sitting too close together, and their bags, etc. aren’t too close to them. I don’t ask them to leave their bags and books on the desks in the front row because I rarely have more than 15 or so candidates, and I can easily see if someone is sneaking glances at their open bag. Or something. If I know there are going to be more students than can comfortably sit so that there’s an empty chair on either side of them, I’ll have version A and B of the paper.

I hand out the papers and tell the students how much time they have. At the language school I used to go through the instructions for each task with the whole group, and warn them about common mistakes or what to watch out for, but I’ve come to realize that when the student gets their hands on the exam paper, they just want to get started. Putting them through reading the instructions together would be torture for most.

So, they’re all scribbling away and I start off by sitting behind the teacher’s desk (the instructor’s desk?) – definitely the only time I’ll be sitting down in the classroom unless I’m teaching 121 or a really small group. Then as time goes on, it’s like in a movie when they want to show time is going by – the scene is the same, but I’m behind the desk, then I’m sitting on the desk, then I’m standing at the back of the room, then by the door, and finally by the window. Then behind the desk again. It’s more to get exercise, really, than to check if anyone’s looking at anything other than their paper.

Time drags by. Occasionally, someone asks a question, and I go up to them and answer quietly so as not to disturb the others. Around halfway through, I say half their time is up, and it seems like everyone wakes up for a second. I warn them when they have around 5 minutes left as well. I usually wait for everyone to hand in their papers themselves – I can’t bring myself to say, “Pens down, everyone!” If that means waiting 5 minutes longer, that’s fine. I might say something like, “Okay, Martina, your hour’s up now, so you should be thinking about finishing off that last sentence in the next couple of minutes.” As the students leave, I tell them when they’ll be getting their results.

When I taught at the language school, I was more helpful (flexible) in the sense that I would watch out if anyone had problems completing a particular task and try to nudge them in the right direction. I wouldn’t do that with undergrads. Also, if, say, most people wanted to listen to the recording (in the listening part of the exam) more than twice, we’d do that. There really is no point – I felt – making adult learners who’re paying for their courses feel as if the whole structure is really rigid.

24 hours later – I didn’t have time to finish yesterday, but on the plus side, I can confirm that the drafts folder didn’t do anything rash, like go ahead and publish on its own accord, so I may yet use it again.

So, greater flexibility in a language school – there’s one more thing I wanted to add. I would sometimes have students who had difficulty keeping their eyes on their own paper. These would as often as not be students who were less accurate in terms of grammar than the rest of the group and probably had a more restricted vocabulary when it came to production, but they didn’t really have a hard time keeping up with the others or following what we were doing. I would then have to decide – especially if we were using a B2 coursebook, for instance – if it was worth it making those people feel bad for getting very few points on the future continuous vs future perfect task (or something equally unlikely to prove indispensable in everyday conversation) and possibly failing the exam. Which they would then have to take again with all the attendant stress; there would be little improvement in accuracy, and they would still continue with the group next semester. I would often pretend I didn’t see them peeking at their neighbor’s paper.

What about you? How seriously are exams taken where you teach? Do you ever multitask as you supervise? What do you do if see/catch students cheating?

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