Exams & Preparation

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Grading Exam Papers: Dismantling Your Teaching

Summer of 2021 was a disillusioning experience: working as an exam marker brought me before grave teaching decisions of the past. And several others chosen not to be made.

An accepted application for the exam-designing organization arrived in the blissful hope that, assessing exam papers would enrich my teaching practice, coupled with a touch of over-confidence. The experience itself drove me into questioning both my background and the decisions I’ve made during my teaching years.

Text by: Marina Siskou

Why Exams?

Popular conversation demonizes exams, as the procreator of automatized, non-creative, non-autonomous minds. This is not a newly voiced lament. Western thinkers, from William Blake to Charles Dickens and Marc Twain have traditionally portrayed schools as a source of drudgery and misery (Sansone, Harackiewicz, 2000).

However, exams hold specific favorable results that cannot be substituted with any other invented method. The popular assumption impugns exams as obsolete, even pernicious to learning. Yet exams do not equal exclusively rote learning, neither should they correspond to numbing of critical thinking.

Why not Exams?

  1. Exams as a conscious decision

Exam-taking is the wrong decision when it happens for the wrong reasons. One such case can be when the decision for examination partake is imposed: factors such as client satisfaction are influential, though inessential.

Exam-taking should not be an option in the face of coercion-of any kind: coercion can be of material, mental and sentimental form, or combined. Coercion is an indicator that something is unnatural. Aristotle, as Sandel (2010) analyses, emphasizes that coercion is an indicator that something is wrong-because it’s unnatural. If you have to coerce someone into a role, that’s a pretty good indication that they don’t belong there. The role isn’t fitting for them. Aristotle recognizes this (Sandel, 2010). 

Learning is not ubiquitously bound to exams, contrary to the popular allegation. Non-traditional educational approaches, the Montessori Method, Steiner, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia have established exam- and observation-free approach to learning: Central to Montessori’s Method of Education is the dynamic triad of the child, teacher, and environment (Marshall, 2017).

Montessori observed how free choice (i.e., “spontaneous interest of the child”) allowed people to develop a deep focus on the activities they engaged in, independent of any extrinsic rewards (Ruhl, 2021). As articulated by Ryan and Deci, 2000), extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is completed in order to attain some separable outcome. Extrinsic motivation thus contrasts with intrinsic motivation -the engagement with an activity for the mere enjoyment of it, rather than for its instrumental value (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Educational approaches excluding examinations from their practices probably have done so; examinations, inadvertently, breed competition among learners. Competition, in return, sabotages learning. Interestingly though, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are not mutually exclusive (Sennet, 2021). Therefore, our motivations are often a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic factors (Nickerson, 2021).

  1. Exams of Reliability and Validity

Two dimensions that, if compromised, destroy the outcome and the purpose of the examination are the precepts of reliability and validity of the examination selected:

Reliability of the Test:  According to Bacham and Palmer (1996), “reliability is defined as the extent to which a questionnaire, test, observation or any other measurement tool produces the same results on repeated trials. In short, it is the stability or consistency of scores over time or across raters” (Tilfarlioglu, 2019).

Validity: “The extent to which the instrument measures what it purports to measure. If, for example, a test predicts that it will test students’ listening ability, grammar should not be scored, to preserve validity” (Tilfarlioglu, 2019).

Exams-participation is a decision to be made only after securing learners can walk the course naturally. This largely lies upon the teacher who is responsible to address exams as a natural part of life instead of stressing their definitive power. Yet, everything can be recovered and fixed.

Educators should take caution against disregarding the educative, formative, and self-reflective value of exams. Examinations focus on breadth, range, and depth of language. They do so by employing a range of assessment means during exam-taking processes: simply put, examinees learn during exam-taking. Yet, it lies within the power of the educator to ensure that learners address exams as educative instead of observatory or punitive.

According to Autin, Batruch and Butera (2015), in discussing the sociological implications of normative assessment, they conclude that regular, performance-oriented subjecting to normative assessment as an instrument of outperformance among students impairs the performance of students, whereas the undesirable consequences disappeared when assessment was “experimentally presented to the students as a way to learn and improve”.

A Risk worth Taking

Teaching is a risk, learning a risk.

Exam-takers encounter obstacles and amazingly, they gravitate to the appropriate strategies to overcoming them.

Truly, monumental moments in English teaching are quiet.

Learning and acquiring for each learner is contingent on a set of unpredictable factors. At some point though be it effortlessly or laboriously, good teaching and perseverance yield positive outcomes.

Struggles and challenges transparently reflect on exam papers. Still, there is no realistic guarantee for the success or the failure of an English-learning endeavor, let alone an exam endeavor. 


Teaching is notoriously risky. Success cannot be secured. Mutuality in the learning process can also be compromised.  Learners, at some point (hopefully not consistently) withdraw. They are disengaged, they underperform. The individualistic nature of teaching only aggravates this risk. Self-awareness is indispensable; no other peer is (all the time) observing our teaching; even when they are, reasons of decency restrain them from outspoken honesty. Truth be told, it requires a combination of hard work, genius, and provision.  

The question of whether one should participate in exams or bypass them equals an existential one: no one can reliably address it. It depends on the setting and the educational approach.



  1. Autin, F., Batruch, A., Butera, F. (2015). Social justice in educational institutions predicts support for (non) egalitarian assessment practice. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4454842/ (last accessed: 12/ 08/2019).  
  2. Bachman, P., Palmer, A.S. (1996). Language Testing in Practice: Designing and Developing Useful Language Tests. Lyle F. Bachman and Andrian S., Palmer, Oxford.
  3. Marshall, C. (2017). Montessori Education: a Review of the Evidence Base. NPJ. Science of Learning. Doi. 10.1038/s 41539-017-0012-7.
  4. Ruhl, C. (2021). Montessori Method of Education. Simply Psychology. www. Simplyspychology.org/Montessori-method-of-education.html.
  5. Ryan, R., M., Deci, E., L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Vol. 25 (1)., p.p. 54-67. https://doi.org/10.101006/ceps1999.1020.  
  6. Tilfarlioglu, F. (2019). Testing evaluation ELT methodology. www.researchgate.net/publication/321155250_Testing_and_Evaluation_in_ELT_Methodology. (last accessed: 12/08/2019).
  7. Sandel, M. (2010). Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Penguin Books, London, 2010.
  8. Sansone, C., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance: Elsevier.
  9. Sennet, P. (2021). Understanding Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Emerging Leaders. Accessed via: https://www.rochester.edu/emerging-leaders/understanding-intrinsic-and-extrinsic-motivation/. (last accessed: 1/01/22).