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.

Visit From a Rover

Now it would be utterly remiss of me not to mention that one of the Roving Scholars, Heather, recently came to Trondheim. The Roving Scholars program is probably the coolest thing that the Fulbright Commission offers in Norway. The Rovers travel from school to school and have a series of workshops that they teach throughout Norway for the duration of the school year. If you’re interested in learning more, information can be found here. Anyways, the Roving Scholars are all amazing and well established teachers and I was really excited to see Heather and to see one of her workshops.

Heather dropped by my International English class early on Friday morning and really managed to engage with my students. The topic of her workshop was the makeup of the United States and American universities. Before this workshop, I got the impression that my students tended to view the United States as one united country. They seemed a bit surprised to learn that there are some pretty significant regional differences across the United States and that these differences range from things like accents to personality traits.

One of my favorite parts of the workshop was when Heather showed my students the infographic below. Having already given my students some background information on different areas in the United States, Heather asked them to look at the infographic and tell her what area of the country they would go to if they had a free plane ticket.

US Personality Map YouGov-01

Considering the adjectives, it came as no surprise that no one wanted to go to the East Coast. Sorry New York. A few students wanted to go to the South, more wanted to go to the Midwest, and the majority wanted to go to the West Coast. As a Californian, I am proud to say that even Norwegians know that the West Coast really is the best coast.

I also enjoyed watching my students learn more about American universities. I think the thing that they found most shocking was the cost of higher education. In Norway, higher education is free, so the price tag for an American university seems like pure insanity. We calculated out the price in NOK for attending a four year $40,000/year institution and the students were a bit stunned to learn that a bachelors degree costs some Americans around 1.2 million NOK. We did put in a good word for financial aid, but that didn’t stop my students from being taken aback at the initial price.

Overall, I think that my students learned a lot and had a good time. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Heather again later in the school year, and I hope that I’ll get the chance to see more of the other Rovers in the spring.