Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sat in the final exam

Before revising for the final exam I felt thoroughly downtrodden. I knew I was lagging behind the class having disappeared to Istanbul to do my workshop and hang-out, and I was hoping some intense revision on 'grammar' would help, as this was what we were told the exam would be about. This made sense to me the course had been grammar driven. There's a number of reasons why teachers love grammar so much, but Z particularly enjoyed grammar as a way to avoid explaining things. “Grammar” she would say, “in level 5”, yet at the same time we followed a grammar transformation path. In the 4 week course I 'learnt' (I certainly drilled and repeated verbs in) the present, past, and future tenses.

And, guess what was in our exam? Not much grammar! A lot of the tasks were 'new' in the sense that I had never come across them on paper. Some of the language I had drilled but not much of it I had written down. Now, I was in a written exam, I had revised grammar. I had a meltdown. I stopped. I went on strike. This was only temporary, but I was royally annoyed. An exam, a real desks in a row exam, I know of many nicer ways to assess that help students. This is not helping me learn. I am under more pressure in this exam than I have been on the entire course. My stress of course compunded by the fact that I have revised grammar, there's not much grammar on the test and all of the instructions are in Arabic. Who designed this test? I doubt it was our teacher. Is the test kept a secret until the day of the test as a way of testing the teacher too? Anyway, I was in a mess.

There's a certain amount of strategy use I can call upon and deploy in these situations. I teach performance strategies sometimes to students taking IELTS or other exams to enable them to enhance this part of their game (the 'game' analogy is an interesting one, but I shan’t go into it here). So I checked which sections carried most marks, it was the writing, write a description of a room in your home, bummer for me, that was what I missed. Knowing this, shouldn't my teacher have chosen a task that everyone could have a go at? I employed strategies here as in the long reading text (this is the beginners level!), about a girl whose husband was also her cousin, we had some words for rooms and descriptions of them so I liberated some language from there (shows my receptive not productive knowledge and also interestingly this transfer is much easier done on paper, copying the words rather than mimicking spoken words). I also answered all the questions, going the all true / or all false root. I couldn't do the Arabic plurals, even though if I had had more energy I could have sieved the text for some examples to use. I wondered if this was coincidence, that there words needed were available on other pages, or by (good / bad) design.

My anxiety in the exam was somewhat lightened by D, from the lone-star state, who came in late. When asked why he cheekily said he was late because he had been avoiding sniper fire. Our teacher didn't understand this, and it was a moment for the native speakers to chuckle into their sleeves.

Another odd things happened during this exam. It looked like an exam, we were silent, sat in rows, no books on the table and our teacher was sat at the front. However, in the exam she left the room, sometimes for for 5 or 10 minutes. This showed trust on her part, showed disrespect to the institutions exam. What does it say about her attitude towards this test? I thought that maybe she had wanted to help us (me), knowing it was difficult, was creating an opportunity for me to cheat. Regardless I was determined to fail elegantly, with panache and not cheat my way through to an undeserved pass. When I self assessed in a norms based way (comparing to others) I felt I was at the bottom of the class. My writing was better than Ali's but his speaking and lexical range far outweighed this. I deserved to fail the course, I would not cheat and I got tired of using strategies as this wasn't supposed to be a test of our exam strategies. Helplessly, I stopped.

After a long break we had a listening test. This was perhaps the second listening we had done in 4 weeks. It seemed potty to me to test us on this. It was a multiple choice listening so offered a fair chance of success, even if you didn't understand. The materials were clearly made in-house, which is nice but the tasks were far too difficult and again the instructions in Arabic. We hadn't studied how to understand instructions in exams on the course so this was troubling me. The recording was a dialogue between two teachers at the university pretending to be a couple or something. It was jokes, the en-un-ci-ation was at times too clear to be natural and at other moments was incredibly fast and in penetrable. They were reading from a script rather than using a plan and I don't think were consistent speed-wise. This exercise made us smile and laugh at least.

So, that was it, done. I was out of there and not going back. There's a number of reasons why but I think this exam really represents much of what is wrong with the course I took.

p.s. - فقط (transliteration - fukit. Meaning - only / just)

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