Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"What do you think I think?" The absurdity of exam questions

Andre's year-end examinations are coming up and I was looking at his work as he was revising for History. I saw one of the questions in a worksheet:

"The Gupta Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of India because of its scientific achievements. Do you agree? Explain your answer."

According to the model answer provided, he's supposed to write the statement "I agree..." or "I disagree..." and give supporting reasons. Which makes perfect sense. But then came the kicker: after giving all the supporting reasons, he's then supposed to write the opposite statement of what he gave earlier, eg if you previously said you agree, now you had to say "However, I don't agree..." And THEN give all the supporting reasons for this statement.

I was perplexed. I checked with Lesley-Anne and found out it's true for her school too. Basically for such questions in History, you're supposed to say you agree and then say you disagree. If you only say one part, you will fail because you'll get at most half the marks, according to the marking scheme. (I know! I'm only finding this out now!) Incidentally, I think this is the O level format for History and/or Social Studies.

Qualifier: I have no problem with exam questions that ask for both sides of an argument. I understand that they want to ensure the students have studied all aspects of an issue, which is all well and good. My quarrel is with the way the questions are phrased. They seem to ask for your opinion but actually, they couldn't care less what it is.

I find that in the past decade or so, we've seen a lot more "what do you think?" kind of questions in exams, right down to the primary school level. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I think it ties in with MOE's constant mantra that they want to groom "thinking" and "life-skills", not just book-smart muggers. So they decided to move from "what do you know?" to "what do you think?", to try and get students to give their views beyond what is provided in the textbooks or exam passages.

However, as is always the case, it boils down to execution. And in true Singapore style, everything has to be recorded regimentally into a marking template, down to the number of points for each key word, so that nothing will be left ambiguous. By which time, there is no room left for any opinion that doesn't fall within the "acceptable answers" pre-determined by the marker.

Eg. in primary school English comprehension questions, those "what do you think?" questions always make me snort. Maybe when the kid first starts school, he naively thinks, "oh! I can write what I think!" Then he quickly wises up when he finds that his "I think Aminah is dumb because she gave her money away." was marked wrong because what the teacher really wanted was "I think Aminah is kind because she gave her money to someone."  In other words, they don't give a flying bumblebee what you think. It's really "what do you think I think?"

Same with this History case. By all means, ask to see both sides of the story. But if that's what the marker wants to see, then just ask, "Explain why the statement is both true and untrue." Don't couch it in a "I wanna know your views!" kind of question and then fail the student if he gives his views, even with supporting arguments.

My point is that looking at the way the exam questions are designed, I suspect we're nowhere closer to grooming creativity and thinking than we are 10 or 20 years ago. The questions have changed but the mindset hasn't. As long as MOE feels that it needs to assess "thinking" or "creativity" via a structured template (don't we just love our KPIs and our numbers!), we're back to marking for content, which was the Singapore syllabus of old. Because honestly, if you truly value thought and opinion, you cannot start off by having a pre-conceived idea of what that opinion should be.

Lesley-Anne recounted how her Integrated Humanities class (which is something like a social studies cum history subject) was in an uproar because of one exam question:

"The government has to play the main role in the alleviation of poverty in China. Do you agree?"

Like in Andre's case, the students knew they had to give both sides of the story, ie say you agree and then say you disagree. So for the "I disagree" portion, many of the students wrote a statement along the lines of "I disagree because people play the main role in the alleviation of poverty in China." The students who did thus, even with all the supporting arguments, failed or barely passed the paper. Apparently, this statement is considered WRONG. You had to say "I disagree because the government doesn't play the main role but the supporting role to the people in the alleviation of poverty."

Note that the supporting arguments given could be exactly the same in two papers, except that the statement is different. But one was deemed to be a fail grade, the other an A grade. The teacher's rationalisation was that the main point is the government so it had to be mentioned in the statement.

The commotion came about because the students in Lesley-Anne's school rightly saw how illogical the marking scheme was. Nowhere in the phrasing of the question was it clear that the government was the main point (I too, thought the alleviation of poverty was the main point). Again, the only explanation I can come up with is our system's relentless obsession with the need to differentiate the kids. It reminded me of that recent primary school science question a mother posted on Facebook. The teacher in that case, defended the question by saying it "differentiated the A students from the A* students".

I'm absolutely positive that it doesn't. In both cases. To the teachers: what you've succeeded in doing is create a wider range of marks, if that's what you deem "differentiating". But don't kid yourself into thinking it actually picks out the brighter students. Unless you define "bright" as someone who possesses magical mind-reading abilities.

Neither of the examples I've cited does anything towards creating more thinking individuals. Quite the opposite. They probably create more confused individuals who are constantly being told that the way they think is wrong. The skill that is assessed and reinforced here is not thinking or creativity, it's the ability to guess and tell someone else what they want to hear. What do you think I think.

I wonder if some academicians have been in education for so long that they have lost the plot. I keep hearing how our education system has to evolve to be relevant to life but from these two examples, I really doubt the markers have any clue what skills are important in real life.

In real life, your opinion matters. In fact, if you were to state "I agree" with something and then follow that up with "I disagree", you'll be told, make up your damn mind already. In real life, it's important to know how to make intelligent arguments and back up your views. Not mind-reading. Not second-guessing. Not meaningless hair-splitting of semantics.

Make education more relevant to life? Yes. But first, understand what's really relevant in life.


Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,

Yeah I agree with you. We want everything to be in a structured and predictable manner. We fear ambiguities and subjectivity.

I used to teach the A-levels and have left the system to teach IB and I'm glad that IB is much more tolerant o ambiguities in answers.


monlim said...

Roy: Once the O and A levels started being marked locally, I think it kinda went downhill from there. Death by marking template.

Anonymous said...

That's why you need to keep blogging, Monica! No one else in the blogosphere can give this sort of level-headed and insightful analysis of our education system and write it in a way that's clear and easy to read.

You go, girl!


monlim said...

PL: Wow, thanks! I guess I need to be inspired or fed up enough by an issue to make time to blog :)

Lilian said...

This is absurd. If I were that wishy-washy when working as a bank economist, my then boss would have hantam-ed me upside down. No "on the one hand, on the other" nonsense. Have courage and take a stand!

Sure, students need to be exposed to differing points of views but it's equally important to form an opinion of your own and defend it.

I remember a couple of years ago, Brian had a Humanities assignment asking the students to give their opinion on whom they thought was at fault in the Crusades. All he had to do was take a stand, and support this stand with concrete historical evidences, and of course since history is never black or white, he had to make judgment calls of his own in interpreting the evidence.

You might enjoy this satirical (I think :D) article on how having an opinion and defending it to the very end shows true courage. Not that I advocate being an obstinate ass, just shows the opposite spectrum of this topic on taking a stand. Funny stuff :D,33742/

monlim said...

Lilian: See, the style with Brian's assignment is what schools here should aspire to do. Start the premise with NO preconceived ideas and hear all the opinions that come out. That's when you can tell who are the insightful ones and who are the ones just blowing smoke.

The trouble is that this is asking teachers to have a blank slate and I think the teachers here are either too insecure or unequipped to handle this. Schools too seem to have this phobia of anything ambiguous. That's why it's so hard for the humanities to thrive in this climate - everything tends to get "scientified".

Haha, funny article. Trust the Onion!

monlim said...

Oh and if I may add, it's not just the schools and teachers, it's the students too. They have been so brainwashed into trusting facts and figures that if we were to go down the opinion route, many of them are sure to ask, "But what do we study? How to make sure I get my A, liddat??"


giggsy said...

Hi Monica,

You are spot on in this post. My son is also in secondary school and takes the compulsory Combined Humanities combo of SS/History and he has been experiencing exactly the kind of teaching and testing that you described. Bottom line is the MOE doesn't really want our kids to think, they just want them to memorise and regurgitate. He used to get very frustrated even back in primary school when he was penalised for thinking out of the box when answering questions. I taught him to wear two hats - his real self, thinking and questioning hat outside school requirements and the MOE-desired, be a robot hat for school requirements. He started doing that and has been happier since. As Mark Twain said, "I do not let schooling interfere with my education." And I think that is so apt for our education system.

monlim said...

Giggsy: And it doesn't help that Social Studies is a compulsory subject for majority of O level students. It's frustrating that we have to teach our kids to think one way for school and the more sensible way elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but I do empathise with the logic behind such questions, for they are trying to tell kids from a young age that what they feel is right may not completely be right, hence an anti-thesis can always be found. In our society, there is no absolute black or white, and grey areas are always present. In a way, such questions introduce such a concept to kids at a young age in an attempt to stimulate critical thinking.
The main concern is how they are teaching such skills. In a bid to obtain concrete results in examinations, students are forced to memorise templates and structures, which kinda backfires.
Students these days do not have the courage to break out of the structures and templates they have been taught. They must know that these merely serve as a guide, and the beauty of such humanities subjects is the flexibility of the answer scheme. If your argument does make sense and answers to the question, the teacher has no right to fault you.
I don't think it's right to pin all fault on the teachers and our education system. Pardon me for saying this but such skills should also be the student's personal responsibility. By sheltering them too much, are we inevitably slowing down their growth?

monlim said...

Anon: You've missed the point of my article. Of course there are always grey areas, of course nothing is black and white and as I've stated, learning to present both sides of an argument is good. My issue is with the phrasing of questions which ask "what do you think?" when the markers are really looking for specific answers.

Of course many students also take the kiasi route by trying to mug and memorise their way into A's but right now, in the secondary school system, that's what is rewarded. If you really think that a student who gives an advant garde answer can score very well, then think again. From anecdotes, this might work for Literature or English but certainly not for History/Social Studies.

Lilian said...

Wrt to Anon's comment, students already learn during lessons that there is no absolute black or white, they learn the different points from both sides of the argument.

It is actually easier to regurgitate, "I agree because blah blah blah" followed by "I disagree because blah blah blah".

When you take a stand, you not only have to make cogent arguments for why you think so, a good essay would also provide reasons on why you think the counter arguments are erroneous or less convincing.

The student still needs to learn both the black and the white, but he learns to defend his views. To defend it, he first needs to study both views and think hard, why do I think this way? There really is no one right answer and that's the beauty of it. The ambiguity is great training for the mind, especially one fed mostly on the one-right-answer hard sciences and math.

Anonymous said...

I did not know that History is taught this way!
Agree then disagree...geez...


rugs said...

perhaps this is why we are such a relatively sheep-like society... it's the conditioning of a lifetime. the only times we break out of the mold is when we are forced by exigencies of work - hence we are politically nice and opinion-free in most other respects.

and perhaps that is why when we are unhappy we resort to decibels and aggressiveness, not having been trained to make a point and to back it up in a civil manner ...

Anonymous said...

Ah, now I understand why at University level, it's so hard to get my students to take a stand. They love to give me the pros and cons, but look confused when I say, ok so what is your view?!

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