Friday, September 28, 2012

Assessments and exams in Korea

The days before midterms and finals are always a bit different here: classes get cancelled or rescheduled with little notice, the kids are noticeably more stressed, and I usually end up presiding over study halls instead of teaching lessons because of directions from co-teachers. Doing so is perfectly fine; exam time’s stressful in any country, but it’s different here than it is in the States, especially this semester because the exams take place on the Thursday and Friday after the big annual Chuseok holiday. The kids will be taking their exams after a 5 day weekend and because Chuseok’s a busy time for Korean families, the kids will get extra time in class to study for their exams.

What follows got sparked by a conversation with JB the co-teacher (Mr. Kim) earlier. He had asked about the American system for high school exams and we’d talked about the differences between the two systems.

He spoke of his dissatisfaction with Korea’s system of putting all the emphasis on the exams because it often results in the students paying little attention in class because they think they can study the textbooks later. Plenty of students sleep in class and don’t participate at all. They can do this because of the testing system. While they have to study for every class period, the students do not generally get in class assignments. The Korean teachers don’t do formative assessments the way American teachers do. Rather, Korean teachers teach middle school and high school like college professors teach giant lecture classes: study the book and pass the exams because the midterm and final mean everything.

Putting everything on the midterm and final results in two things: less paperwork and grading for the Korean teachers and more stress for the students, who virtually no incentive to stay awake in class beyond taking notes because they can always cram for the exams later. JB doesn’t like this idea because he’d rather the students paid more attention in class.

He’d asked me about the US style of exams and I explained how the US middle/high schools don’t operate like their Korean counterparts. US middle/high school teachers tend to follow a system of daily assignments, homework, quizzes, and tests to record students’ grades. All of those things get assigned a point value. The final exam comes at the end of the semester. This method presents more work for the teacher and the students, but it does alleviate the stress of studying for the final exam. I can’t speak for all US high schools, but Waukesha West High School pegged the exam’s weight at no more than 20%. This meant that the exam could only count for 20% of a student’s final grade and 80% would come from other assignments. The exams were important, but they wouldn’t always make or break a student’s overall score. A D student could ace the exam and get a C or an A student could fail and get a B or C.

JB found what I said intriguing and said he thought that changing to the American style of grading might bolster the students’ focus in class. I’m inclined to agree. The students would have more incentive to do well during daily classes and would have less pressure to do well on the exams. As it is, they tend to study like they’re in a university: furiously cramming during the days leading up the exams.

We’ll have to see what can be done here. It’s good to know that JB and I have similar ideas about assessing/grading students. It’s also good to know that he’s thinking about these things because it shows active involvement in his profession. With his help, it may be possible to implement an American-style system to assess students. Some kind of points system’s in order for my future classes. While plenty of students do pay attention, there are always one to three students in every class who evidently can’t be bothered to do much of anything. They generally don’t cause any trouble. Most of the time, they’re overtired from the long hours at school, hagwon, and the PC bang. The co-teachers usually let this behavior ride, so there isn’t too much I can do about it. Still, having a chart or two with the students’ points could boost their attention levels.

I should note that I don’t officially have to do this, but I want to. Even after a year, it’s still amazing how much paperwork I don’t have to do here. Unlike the Custer days of yore, there are no essays to grade and little, if anyway, attendance sheets to fill out. For this American teacher, it’s a bit strange, but it’s easy to get used to.

I’d been thinking of instituting a points system for daily work because it could boost participation. To date, this has not been done yet, partly because of negligence and partly because I don’t want to fall back on rewards. Kirsten has been successful with her system of points and rewards, but I’m not a fan of using extrinsic motivators in the classroom because they don’t promote learning for learning’s sake.

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