Testing and an Open Internet

Norway does not have the same test taking culture that we have in the United States. Going through the US education system I remember being regularly tested. Up through middle school, I remember taking at least one form of standardized test each year, and in high school I took the SAT in addition to several AP tests each year. On top of that, you also have your standard classroom tests.

In Norway, things are very different. Students are not assessed as regularly or as often as students in the United States. Homework is rarely assigned or handed in, and major assignments and tests are few and far between. The one glaring exception to this is the end of year mock exams and national exams.

Mock exams are designed to emulate the national exams and thus help students prepare for their exams. The name is a bit deceiving however because these exams still count towards a student’s grade. They are effectively final exams. Students have mock exams in all of their classes, but they will not have a national exam in all of their classes. When students first begin upper secondary school they are unlikely to take national exams, but as they continue to move up the education ladder they are tested more and more. Here’s how things break down for the college prep track:

  • First year in upper secondary school (Vg1) – Maybe 1 exam. Approximately 20% of students will be given an exam.
  • Second year in upper secondary school (Vg2) – 1 exam (Two thirds of students will take a written exam and the remaining students will take an oral exam)
  • Third year in upper secondary school (Vg3) – 4 exams (3 written and 1 oral) are necessary in order to graduate. It is required that one of the written exams is in Norwegian.

Rarely is a student given both a written and an oral exam in the same subject. Students aren’t told what subjects they’ll be tested on until a few weeks before their national exams.

Although students should be prepared to take an exam in any subject, I’ve been told that things hardly appear to be completely random. For example, it is rare for those in the sciences to ever be tested in the humanities. In essence, students are tested in their strengths. While there is some value to that, one of the downsides is that it’s easy for students to dismiss subjects that they don’t think that they will be tested in. For example, it is not uncommon for mechanics students to be blasé in their English classes, secure in the knowledge that they probably won’t be tested in the subject at a national level.

I’ve been told that national exams are good for schools because they give the school a good idea of how well the students and teachers are doing. As for the students, I’ve been told that although the national exams do not factor into their grades, their scores are looked at during the university admissions process and might even hold more weight than a student’s transcript.

One interesting development that has taken place in the last few years is the introduction of the Internet to the national exams. My school is participating in a pilot program that has the students to take their exams online and allows them open access to the Internet. Although this is technically a pilot program, everyone I’ve talked to agrees that the pilot program is not to determine whether or not students should have access to the Internet, rather it is to work out any kinks before rolling the system out across the entire country. So far there are no restrictions as to what websites students can access during the exams, meaning that in theory the students could spend their entire time on Facebook instead of on the exam. Maybe it’s just my suspicious American mind, but it seems to me that this leaves a very clear opportunity for students to plagiarize, cheat, and collaborate during an exam. The Norwegians on the other hand seem fairly unconcerned with this possibility. I suppose that’s what happens when you live in a largely law abiding society.

Beyond the possibility for cheating, I generally think open access to the Internet is a bad idea. First, from the teaching perspective, it makes it very difficult to know what to actually teach your kids. Because the Internet gives students access to so much information, the scope of the exam increases, making it more difficult to try and guess what will be on the exam. This forces teachers to focus more on breadth instead of depth, making them feel as though they have to cover more material in the same amount of time.

Second, I think that it makes it more difficult to encourage critical thinking. Because students are covering so much information in such a short span of time, it means that students don’t have as much time to really engage with texts. I think that the biggest thing education can offer students is how to think on their own. Because teachers aren’t able to cover topics in depth, this can prevent students from learning the nuances of a topic and allowing them to create their own informed opinions. It’s much easier to read an opinion piece on the Internet and regurgitate it on a test than it is to critically engage with the facts and come up with your own answers.

But so far it seems like only me and a few of my co-teachers have that opinion. I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens and hope for the best.

Russ

Russ is here! It’s the time of year, when to quote Buzzfeed, “Norwegian teenagers lose their fucking minds, wreak havoc across the country and EVERYONE IS TOTALLY FINE WITH IT.” If you want a colorful overview of russ definitely check out this Buzzfeed article, otherwise I’m going to go ahead and explain it, but without all of the GIFs and Instagram pictures.

Now because russ is not well documented in English, most of my knowledge comes from my co-teachers, English language blogs, and Wikipedia, so apologies if any of this is incorrect.

When is russ?

Russefeiring, more commonly known as russ, is a tradition that started in 1905. Students who are in their last year of upper secondary school participate in what is essentially a month long graduation celebration. The start date for this celebration seems to depend on where you’re located and the school that you attend, but I’ve been told that it can start as early as the end of Easter break (around April 6). For my students, they have decided to start on the official russ day, May 1. But regardless of what day russ starts, it always ends May 17, Constitution Day, the Norwegian national day.

To make matters more interesting, students have their national exams in the weeks right after russ ends. Now you might wonder why on earth you would ever have russ before your national exams instead of after them. According to one of my co-teachers, things used to be organized this way, but the timeline was changed in the hopes that it would make things less crazy. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think that this has been a successful strategy and there is talk of moving russ to after the national exams.

How can you tell if someone is participating in russ?

Students are traditionally supposed to wear special russ overalls, or russebukse, which cost around 599 NOK (78 USD). The color of your russebukse depends on what you are studying:

  • Red for higher education (the most common color)
  • Blue for business (also higher education in economics and management)
  • White for medical and social studies
  • Black for engineering (such as mechanics or electrics)
  • Green for agriculture

and these overalls are worn for the entire duration of russ (at least two weeks straight).

There are also russ hats, russelue, that are given to each student. The idea behind them is similar to the idea of a graduation cap, they are a symbol of completion. The hats also have a nickname written on their brim which is suppose to characterize either the student’s normal behavior or their russ behavior.

What happens during russ?

Now you’re probably wondering what these students actually do during russ. Well one element of russ comprises of students trying to earn russ knots for their caps, or russeknuter. These pranks usually have to be witnessed by either members of the Russeboard, or videotaped (Yes, there is a governing student body to this month long celebration). When a prank or dare has been verified, the student earns a knot in their cap. Out of curiosity, I went on this year’s russ website (Yes, there is even a website) and looked at a few of this year’s challenges. According to Google Translate, some choice dares are:

  • Buy a pack of condoms using only body language
  • Go through a whole lesson wearing only underwear
  • Pretend you are an animal for an entire school day
  • Act as a tour guide on public transportation for at least five stops
  • Drink a bottle of wine in 20 minutes, minimum 75cl.
  • Go through an entire school day with your arms and legs tied or taped to another russ
  • Have safe sex with a statue
  • Have sex with two people with the same first name on the same evening.

To my relief, there is a range in how risqué the dares are. Here are a few of the nicer ones:

  • Visit a retirement home and make the residents’ day brighter
  • Give a hug to a police officer. Remember to ask nicely
  • Take a picture with the Russeboard and post on Instagram
  • Be at school every day during school (for smart individuals)

Additionally, many students participate in different parties and even fundraise for these parties. My students put on a play that I was invited to (they assured me that it would be PG-13), but I was unable to attend. The ticket proceeds went to an afterparty.

If you take a look at the Buzzfeed article above, you’ll even see that some students manage to buy buses that they transform into russ party buses. They essentially drive around the country going to different parties, or simply set up shop in a parking lot and drink there. When I asked my students if they had a bus their response was “…No. That’s for the rich kids in Oslo. Why would you even want to party in a parking lot?” Clearly there are some regional russ differences.

Reactions to russ

In short, russ involves a lot of drinking, partying, and (unprotected) sex. My students had to go to an assembly where they talked to a police officer and the school nurse. When I asked them what they learned, they said they learned about safe sex (this was paired with an eye roll), “how to not get raped,” and where to get tested for STDs. When I asked if they learned about safe drinking, their answer was confused silence. After waiting for about a minute, someone ventured to say, “They told us to drink water?” I tried very hard not to cringe this entire time.

I’ve had a number of people ask me what Norwegians generally think about this tradition, and the answer is that many of them don’t mind it. Many older people look back fondly on this time, while younger kids think that it is something to look forward to. One thing that gets children really excited about russ is russ business cards, a fake business card that each students makes. The typical card has a silly picture paired with an inappropriate phrase, and children go around and try and collect as many of these russ cards as they can. This is also why one of this year’s russ challenges is to run through an elementary school during recess without giving away a single card.

As for me, as a teaching assistant I’m in an ideal spot to watch all of this. I’m not responsible for how well students do on their national exams, nor am I really in a position to discipline any of my students. I’m interested to see how the next few weeks play out, and rest assured I will report if I notice anything russ related happening in class.