Friday, 1 February 2013

Exam Time Timing

Exams are a special kind of hell - for teachers as well as students. And I'm not talking about the agony of correcting the same error a dozen times despite being SURE you mentioned that during review. I'm talking about how there is LITERALLY not enough time to handle marking exams.


I'm going to do my best to just present the facts here. Consider this an explanation of why the end of January and end of June tend to be vanishing points for me and other teachers... and why my wife is incredible for putting up with my mood swings at this time of year.

First, a bit of historical context.

The Ontario Education Act, R.R.O. 1990, Regulation 304 states the following:
"With respect to every school year after the 1997-1998 school year, a board may designate up to ten instructional days as examination days."

We'll take all ten, thanks. What this (often) means in the semestered system is five examination days at the end of January, and another five at the end of June.

Second, a bit of curriculum context.

A worst case scenario might be a course with four strands, each with three Overall Expectations to be covered. This (in theory) means at minimum twelve questions... and some expectations require multiple questions. I defy anyone to generate one question that hits this single expectation:
"By the end of this course, students will determine the values of the trigonometric ratios for angles less than 360; prove simple trigonometric identities; and solve problems using the primary trigonometric ratios, the sine law, and the cosine law."

But let's be generous and assume there are only twelve questions with any depth to them, each requiring only two minutes to mark. That's 24 minutes to correct a single exam. In a class of 30 (some classes do have a lower cap), that's 720 minutes.  SO 12 HOURS.  Yeah.

Teachers "work a 7 hour day" (8am to 3pm only, right?), meaning to mark one set of exams would take almost two days. Of course, a full time teacher would have three sets of exams, bringing us to 36 hours. Basically a week (five days) of only marking exams. Oh, and can we have some final mark calculation and report card comments thrown on top of that? Perfect.

But wait. I mentioned there's only five days in the exam period TOTAL, right? So already the math is suspicious, given you don't start the exam period with all your exams. Yes, the reality of scheduling will make things even worse. I'm going to frame this two ways.


When I first started teaching (about eight years ago), the five days tended to break down this way, which may be how you remember them:
Day One Morning (9-11:30): Mostly English Exams
Day One Afternoon (12:30-3): Other Exams
Day Two Morning: Mostly Math Exams
Day Two Afternoon: Other Exams
Day Three Morning: Mostly Science Exams
Day Three Afternoon: Other Exams
Days Four and Five: Whatever remains + Practical Exams (eg. Instrumental)

The "Other Exams" would vary from semester to semester, chosen to minimize conflict and to share the love around (French wouldn't always be last, nor would History, et cetera). The main reason for English and Math getting precedence is because we actually have Boardwide English exams (for Gr 12) and Math exams (for Gr 11 prior to curriculum revamp, now for Gr 10). They would then meet up for conference marking later in the week.

Exams were written centrally, in the gymnasium/cafeteria. Teachers would have at least a couple of supervision blocks, so this is time they couldn't be marking. (Teachers without exams in their courses, or who run them in class, also have blocks.) Let's look at two cases:

No dice.
Worst Case Scenario. You have three courses with exams that all take place on Day Three. On the bright side(?), on Day One and Two you can prepare for your February startup, and once you get your exams, no supervision duties to keep you from them. Two days to do 36 hours of marking. Well... 18 hour days still leaves 6 hours for sleep.

Best Case Scenario. You have three courses with exams that all take place on Day One. Three and a half days to do 36 hours of marking - recall there's a duty when you won't be marking.  Over 10 hours per day. More reasonable maybe, but still a far cry from the 7 hour day referenced above.

But that's not how it is anymore.


This is the way the five day schedule has been handled the last few years, all of these in the morning:
Day One: Period One Exams
Day Two: Period Two Exams
Day Three: Period Three Exams
Day Four: Period Four Exams
Day Five: Practical Exams (eg. Instrumental)

Note first of all that this plays havoc with the Boardwide Exams. (They're still trying to figure that one out.) Second of all, this plays havoc with generating exams - a teacher who teaches the same subject Period One as Period Four now technically needs to set two different but similar exams.

There are a number of reasons for this shift that I don't want to get into, but I will highlight two: (1) It's easier for the students. They'll never have two exams on one day (unless they're affected by the Boardwide), so they can study more exclusively. Also, those who get Extended Time don't have issues with finishing one exam and immediately needing to start another. (2) It's easier for admin. They don't have to deal with scheduling conflicts, and trying to minimize the number of students who might otherwise have two exams happening at once.

Now, by the numbers, it's easier for teachers too. The reality feels different though. Rather key is that exams are now NOT written centrally, meaning you monitor your own exam in your classroom. The astute will notice this means there are suddenly three supervision duties where there used to be two, but in terms of timekeeping it does work out to be about the same; I don't want to get into that either, but let's say we have 2/3 of a day left rather than 1/2.

Worst Case Scenario. You have three courses with exams on days two, three and four. You have 2/3+2/3+2/3+1 days to mark - so 3 days. 36 hours of marking makes for 12 hour days. By the numbers, this is better than the 18 hours above.

Let me caveat. You'd be surprised how draining it is to monitor exams for three straight mornings. It can interfere with the rhythm too, when you have to stop marking a set - so you can wander around a room, alert for any cheating, your reward being more marking. Plus with the need to prepare three different exams, the whole thing is more a tradeoff of where the time is being spent. But whatever.

Best Case Scenario. You have courses with exams on days one, two and three. This obviously gives you the extra day, ergo 4 days for 36 hours. That makes for 9 hour days. Again, better by the numbers. Though we do still need to throw in report card comments and did I mention giving level rankings in six categories of learning strategies? (Sorry. Can't forget that.)

Doesn't work on wood. Or report cards.

So. What do we get from all this? As always, take from this what you will, but here's what I propose are the takeaways:
1) This is why you don't see many teachers at the end of January and June. (June is fun for other reasons, Grade 12 exams have to take priority because their commencement can conceivably take place 3 days after they write!)
2) This is why lately you see shorter exams, and a lot more multiple choice. (Scantron is your friend.) Remember the ENTIRE argument is based on being able to mark a single exam in 24 MINUTES.
3) More days to mark would be bloody nice. The addition of a single day cuts the 12 hour day down to 9, and the 9 hour workday to a more manageable 7.2 (yes, it looks too short, remember, report cards!) Unfortunately, the Ontario government has elected to go with unpaid professional development days next year instead. Oh well?

As stated earlier, my wife is also an angel for putting up with me, because here's the thing. It doesn't take me 24 minutes to get through one exam. It can take me an hour. So all those times above? DOUBLE THEM. Forget about sleep, I keep waking up, freaking out over my workload. Forget about eating, because, well, I actually did forget to have breakfast on Thursday. Forget about Twitter too, I haven't been on there since Wednesday.

I have to ask, is it just me?  Do other teachers go through this?  Do other teachers (like in the States or UK) have some other system?

Anyway, I plan to work like a banshee through the weekend to get myself back on track (as if I have a choice, final marks are due on Monday... and the new semester's already started). With any luck, at some point next week, you'll get the following:
- A Day in the Life follow-up, highlighting what I can recall of the blur that is this past week.
- An explanation of why the things that make me a good writer/editor make me REALLY lousy at level-based marking, generally speaking.
- An entry explaining why I feel like the Data Management exam I gave this year was so awesome. Yeah, it's not always about me stressing out.

By saying it, maybe they'll happen! (By saying you want to see them, they'll happen for sures!) At some point I REALLY do need to figure out lessons for next week though... boy, it's a good thing I like other aspects of this job.

1 comment:

  1. Wow... I didn't realize just how much there has to be done in so short a time. And, I suspect, teachers had a bit more time (like, another 3-5 "working days" (as opposed to weekends) to get exam marks done when I was in high school.


    Good luck, and good luck to your wife, too.