Exams can’t measure a student’s worth

“The most important lessons in life are not always found in textbooks.” – Nadia Nicole, 2016 Fellow

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At the end of 2016, Nadia’s students completed their end-of-year English exam. Their results were impressive, but Nadia is not convinced that exams completely capture her students’ intellectual and social growth.

Like many children throughout Malaysia, my students are not fond of exams.

“Exams stress me out because my future depends on it. I sacrifice my leisure time to prepare for exams.” – JL, 14
“We have to study hard to prepare for the exams and it is really stressful.” – AA, 14
“The questions are too difficult.” – HH, 14
“I don’t get to play football as much as I’d like to.” – IS, 14

Yet even with their struggles, I’ve seen them progress throughout the year.

Earlier in 2016, a handful of students failed their English exam and didn’t believe they could score any higher. I vividly remember a girl who came to me in tears when she realised she had failed. However by the end of the year, her hard work, quiet diligence, and growing confidence paid off when she managed to pass the final exam with a 40% increase in her marks. She wasn’t the only one to improve. I saw a great number of students who went from Es , Ds, and Cs – to Bs and As. Overall, my students managed to achieve a 100% pass rate for English, and I’m so proud of them for achieving this.

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Passing and getting good grades are NOT the point.

As an instrument for checking a student’s progress in a subject, exams are necessary. The problem is, rather than viewing it as a tool for improvement, it has turned into a competition to see who can score the highest marks.

One thing I like to do is to note on their exam papers how much they’ve improved compared to the last exam. This is to show them their growth and to remind them that no matter how they did, they should know and celebrate their progress. I believe that there should be fewer exams because students now think that the only use for their education is to pass exams. They don’t internalise the value of education. As their teacher, what I try to do is to help them realise that exam results are not the end-all.

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To help my students catch this vision of purposeful learning, I show them that education doesn’t just take place in the classroom and exam hall.

Whenever they see me in the classroom or outside, they know they have to speak to me in English. Sometimes, students don’t have the opportunity to practise what they learn in school. It took time for them to get used to it, but now when they see me, they automatically speak in English.

I was pleasantly surprised one day to find out that they speak English even when I’m not close by. One of my students told me that at home, she’s now more inclined to speak English than Malay because of the rule I set. That was a pretty big moment for me as her teacher.

Deeply valuing social or interpersonal learning.

An excellent education should present students with opportunities to be better human beings. What’s the point of having individuals who can regurgitate the facts in a textbook, only to watch them be rude and disrespectful to others? I believe that positive behavioural changes that occur are as important, if not more important, than academic success.

I’ve been lucky enough to be reminded of the amazing patience and persistence of my weaker students who made the effort to keep trying and always do their best to improve. Students are, after all, humans. Most of their amazing qualities aren’t measured on an assessment rubric or exam.

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Seeing results elsewhere.

At the start of 2016, I prepared a class contract for my students. In it, I set the class rules and expectations for conduct. I discussed it with them to see if they agreed, took their feedback into account, and made appropriate changes.

To keep track of their behaviour in class, I initially used an app called Class Dojo. Students would receive points for handing in homework on time, being respectful, and coming to class punctually. Whenever they reached 30 points, I rewarded them.

During the first four to five months, I had to stick to this system strictly. Afterwards however, I realised that even without using the Class Dojo system, a large number of my students were already forming positive habits, putting in effort to say, “Teacher, my homework is done, could you please take a look at it?” or “Teacher, may I help you with your bags?” Little things like that warm my heart.

Such progress is not only encouraging, it reminds me of the limitations of exams.

Recently, I wrote letters to my students as my way of encouraging them with words of affirmation. It was a way for me to show them that their families know them better than any exam paper ever will, and that I see each one of them as gifted in their own way — not even the twins in my class are alike. I want them to know that exams do not measure how loyal a friend they are, how polite they are, or how caring they are.

The exams they face do not evaluate their talent for sports, nor do they measure how much they help their younger siblings at home. They don’t measure the joy they bring into my life to light up my darkest days.

Their academic journey would be nothing without love. I have seen more of them than any exam paper ever will and I know that those papers will never come close to measuring their worth.

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Nadia Nicole Abd Halim teaches at a school in Pasir Gudang, Johor. She graduated with a Bachelor of Biotechnology (Hons) in Microbial Biotechnology from the University of Queensland.

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Teach For Malaysia recruits, trains and supports Fellows to teach in high-need schools across the nation. Beyond the Fellowship, our Alumni continue to champion education in different ways. To date, we’ve impacted over 44,000 students, working with the Ministry of Education and other partners.

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