Friday, 21 November 2008

Invigilator Woman

Sometimes I look at my students and remember the thrill of being a university student. Of meeting new people and having fantastic new experiences -- and the sheer joy of a long, interesting (I was positive it would be interesting) life stretching out in front of me. But there are other times -- like these past few days -- when I think that I would not repeat my youth for any amount of anything. You see, I've been invigilating these past few days.

Personally, I hate tests. I hate the fact that in most tests there are only absolutes: everything is A, B, C or D, true or false, one and only one answer. I've never met a test without at least one question that made me sigh and wonder what the test-writer wanted me to answer, right or wrong. I hate the way tests seem to sum a person up. You scored 100%? Great -- the world's your oyster. Only got 75%? Got to try harder next time! 65? Yep, you're destined for a life of mediocrity. Human beings are so complex and tests never take into account quirks, special talents, or personality -- or whether you're the kind of person who will do the dishes when your mother has a headache. Taking tests is like being made to jump through hoops. Plus, I happen to be crap at them.

Sadly, after having taught for all these years, I do see the need for tests. At the very least, I'll finally be able to look my rowdy group of kids in the eye and say, "See? You really didn't know the present perfect! Now will you settle down and listen to me?" And if you've got to give tests, you've got to make sure that they are as good as possible, and you have to make sure that they are given fairly. Which is where the invigilator comes in.

I have to say that although classroom control is not my strong point in teaching, I am a great invigilator. The first time I ever gave a test, I caught a girl calmly copying her neighbor's answers while my back was turned and I hit the roof. Sure, tests are hoops to jump through, but I still hate cheating. I've never let it happen again. If any of the students whose tests I invigilated managed to cheat, I would be well and truly impressed.

Way back when I was a student, kids resorted to things like crib sheets and notes scribbled on hands and arms. These still exist, but there are also cell phones, tiny little cameras, and other sophisticated devices I won't even bother trying to describe. Divesting students of their coats, sweaters, bags, cell phones and assorted documents took up a good fifteen minutes.

"Check their I.D. cards," my Turkish colleague murmured, and I moved around the classroom doing this. All of the photographs had been taken a good five years earlier when these kids were still in high school, and the changes they'd gone through were amazing. One kid, a tall, bearded, bushily unibrowed young man with a sullen look on his face, seemed reluctant to produce his card. Why, I wondered? What was he trying to hide? When he finally pulled it out of his back pocket, my question was answered: the photograph showed a pimply, bespectacled nerd with a lopsided grin, but indisputably him. Smiling and blushing furiously, he shot me a look that clearly said Now that you know, please don't tell!

Once the I.D. cards were all checked and the students were all seated where we wanted them to sit -- if allowed to pick their own seats, the weaker students invariably seek out the swots for obvious reasons -- we distributed the tests and answer sheets, and the test began.

And boy, did I feel like a fraud. Because even as I stood there raking the class with my eagle-eyes, keen to prevent cheating, I could remember all too well the sheer sweaty-palmed terror of that smooth white sheet being handed to me, the sickening hush as the entire classroom quietly absorbed the horror in front of them, my mouth going dry as I saw the questions I'd never anticipated -- and the ones I had but knew I could not answer. I remembered seeing the looks of quiet satisfaction on the smarter students' faces, their calm, self-assured expressions as they completed their equations or worked out their hypotheses with disgusting ease. And I could also remember the one and only time I tried to cheat -- and failed. The teacher had wisely shuffled the test questions so that number 8 on one sheet was not necessarily number 8 on one's neighbor's.

Scanning the students' faces I could almost feel the air around me crackle with fear and panic. A girl in the front seat chewed the end of her pencil and looked up at me with desperation in her eyes. A boy in the back cast his eyes heavenward and sighed deeply. You could see it in their expressions: absolutely nobody wanted to be there. The sun outside shown brightly; the ocean was a blaze of shining blue with frothy white-capped waves. And here they sat, trapped, taking an English test.

"No talking!" snapped my colleague with perfect justification, as one boy turned to his neighbor, ostensibly to borrow an eraser. He frowned and shrugged his shoulders and looked back down at his paper.

Time passed so slowly. Scanning faces endlessly, I got so bored that I found myself irked at my colleague for marking off the time on the board -- the one interesting thing to look forward to, and it only came along every fifteen minutes!

Then suddenly I heard a low mumble and saw my unibrowed former nerd leaning forward to confer with a friend. I slapped my desk and they both looked up, stricken, twin deers caught in my headlights. "If you have any questions, direct them to us!" I said sternly.

But I felt such a fraud.


Kim Ayres said...

Yup, you've transported me back. Wondering if I could stick the compass point in my neck at the right place to ensure I bled to death before I had to submit the paper.


susie said...

Ugh....tests are the worse. I've always been a bad multiple choice/true false test taker. But, hand me an essay test and I'd go to town and write for hours.
Oh well, I guess I can say that test taking helped me figure out where my gifts were and it certainly helped me realize my brain was not geared towards science and math!
You did a great job taking me back to the feeling of sweaty palms and looks of desperation towards my teacher. I hope they did well :)

Robin said...

Now I'm going to have nights of dreaming that I've gone to college, forgot to go to any of my classes, and now have to take finals. That is my most frequent anxiety dream, and now I remember why! Those days were awful!

I'm still holding it against these kids that they weren't listening to you in class, so I'm having trouble feeling sorry for them. Listen up, boys, and you won't need to cheat!

My dad once had a student write him a note and attach it to the test, explaining that "Mr. Smith" was absent from school that day. The kid relied on Mr. Smith for "ideas" during tests, so could my dad please keep that in mind while grading? My dad sure kept it in mind!

Charlie said...

I agree with susie: I did much better on essay tests. And Kim was lucky—we weren't allowed a compass.

The multiple choice tests I hated were the ones with almost identical answers with just one or two words changed in each. The purpose, I think, was to know the answer by rote from the textbook, which was fine if one had a photographic memory.

Which I did not.

Carrie Harris said...

I'm strange. I like taking tests. I liked them enough that my masters program centered on research on testing theory. You want to talk nerd, baby; I take the cake!

Charles Gramlich said...

I feel kind of the same way you do about tests. I hate giving and grading them. But as for taking them, I was just an odd enough kid that I rather always enjoyed taking them. At least the ones that required fact based knowledge as opposed to the ones that required calculations.

Anne Spollen said...

I'm always afraid I'm asking them what they DON'T know and not including enough of what they DO know. I find it really difficult to make a test that fairly assesses what I've taught -- and I always understand that their test grades are really a reflection on my teaching (though I never thought that way in school)

Phil said...

I teach the last year of the primary phase (UK) and I have to take all my pupils through national tests. Every year I feel it is me who is being examined as their results reflect my teaching. I feel more nervous than most of them. (No matter they've had six years of education before I get hold of them.)

Hate them with a passion.

As for taking tests - I hate that too. Finished a three year course last year with a whole day of tests and assessments - written and via interview. Terrible - especially the interviews. Thankfully I passed - but it's not something I'd care to repeat.

As Kim - yes, took me back.


AnneB said...

Okay, I admit it. I had to look up both "invigilator" and "swot."

Barbara Martin said...

You took me back to writing the last sets of government "matriculation" exams. The only good thing to come after my high school wrote them was we were allowed to rewrite because we had only covered 40% of the material in the exam.

I always liked the essay questions, which disappeared on the rewrite exam and morphed into multiple choice. There were "open book" exams, but it took forever to look up the answer providing you knew where to locate them.

Thanks for this trip down memory lane.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I take that same trip back every time I have to give a test! Part of me feels bad for the students and the selfish part of me just feels relieved that I've already gone through my own torment and don't have to do it again.

Susie -- I used to appreciate essay questions myself; at least I could explain myself and not feel forced to choose an answer I didn't agree with, but which I knew the test writer was convinced was the best choice. And my brain isn't geared toward science and math either. That broke my heart when I was a kid, but I have since come to terms with it.

Robin -- I only ever failed one test in all my life (chemistry, and in my own defense, over one third of the class failed it too) and, weirdly enough, I usually did well enough on tests -- and yet the dream you describe of having forgotten to go to classes, prepare for tests, etc., is my own personal anxiety dream. My mother was a star student and this too was her own repeat anxiety dream. What does it mean, doctor?

And I'm holding it against those kids too! I've just found out their scores and the two girls I've yelled at most frequently for having bad attitudes and ignoring my instructions, advice, etc., failed. Maybe now they'll listen to me!

Like your dad, I've got a few kids who have a 'Mr Smith'. Without their Mr Smith around, they are lost little lambs. Mr Smith, the enabler.

Charlie -- The kind of test you describe, with two or three multiple choice items almost entirely identical save for one tiny detail, is the exact format you will find on almost all Japanese entrance exams. Some universities are particularly notorious for this -- Waseda and Sophia University, to name names. They love tripping students up on arcane bits of grammar that no one gives a sh*t about anymore. I used to find preparing students for those tests pure misery; you are forced to spend all your time on stupid details when students could be learning interesting and useful English instead.

I used to have a photographic memory, but I think it's faded over time.

Carrie -- Actually, I love talking testing theory too (sort of) and can do a fair amount of nerd talking myself as long as no statistics are involved (please, no statistics!) But my husband can do the statistics nerd talking like a pro. When I can't sleep, I just get him to tell me all about nonparametric statistics and it works a treat.

Charles -- I was okay when the tests had essay questions and I always did well on those. And weirdly enough, I did well on language tests, English tests, history and social studies tests. The tests that make my blood run cold just to remember are the algebra, chemistry, and geometry tests. Because I had a block.

Anne S -- Yes, that is EXACTLY how I feel! When I look at my students' poor test results, I see a reflection of my own lack of teaching skill. There are times I almost feel like shaking my students and telling them they HAVE to succeed because if they don't, I'll feel awful about myself. Fortunately I always catch myself just in time...

Phil -- I've passed your comments along to my husband, who I know will feel reassured that other teachers take their students' progress (or lack thereof) to heart. I look at some of my students' results and feel like saying, "Hey, they were like that when I got them!" One of the greatest joys a teacher can have is making a good difference in a kid's life -- seeing a kid go from the darkness of ignorance to the light of joy in learning. I'm waiting for that...

I'll never forget my graduate examinations and how miserable I was waiting to take them. The actual test itself was not awful, but the interview was hellish. I do not do well on interviews; my knees tend to shake uncontrollably.

AnneB -- Good for you -- I look up words all the time. Last year I found out what 'egregious' meant; you have no idea how long I've wondered. When they first told me I would be invigilating I did a double take -- "I'll do WHAT?" Someone explained it to me or I'd have gone straight to my Webster's. 'Swot' is a great word because it's very simple and I'm not sure there is an American equivalent that is as succinct. (The only reason I know 'swot' is because my kids use it all the time. Wish they did a little more of it...)

Anne, please send me your e-mail address if you can -- in a PM on VK's if you can do this! I've lost your e-mail address and want to write to you!

Barbara -- Government examinations sound awful! And what a shame that the essay questions got changed to multiple choice. I know why: marking multiple choice is a real headache for the examiners. It's hard to get a uniform marking system, and that is unfair on the students. But it's also tough for one examiner to mark, say, a couple hundred essay exams.

One of the good things about open book exams is that the students who do well tend to be the ones who spend a lot of time going over their books!

Eryl said...

I hate anything that expects me to concede there is one right answer, it's dogmatic and bullying. One of my students told me about a company that asks all prospective employees at interview how much liquid is in a glass. As I was trying to work this out she pointed to her mug of tea and asked me 'how much tea is in it?' I looked at the tea and said about 125 mils.'No!' she said, 'you're supposed to say it's half full, then they think you're positive.' How can there be a 'correct' answer that is so vague? I despair.

Katie Alender said...

I was always pretty good with tests, but your description made me nervous!

Kappa no He said...

I once visited a private junior high school in Japan and found that someone had scraped the answers to a test on the underside of the leaves on a potted plant. I showed the teacher and he thought it was the funniest thing in the world.