In School in Germany: No Tailored Exams, Please!

Empty study corner at one of the German Hochschulen. Could tailored exams have something to do with that?

If there is a word of advice I could give to the teachers on the school and university level, speaking from my own experience as an English teacher, I would give them this one: Exams are no free tickets to success. Students have to pay for their ticket in order to pass. Exams are designed by the teacher with the goal of not only testing the students’ knowledge on a topic, but also to determine which areas the students need to improve on. From my standpoint, an exam is used to challenge the students- to get them to think outside the box and use the acquired knowledge in other ways and in their own words.

Sadly, looking at the exams today from a teacher’s point of view, as well as that of the students’, I see their value sliding down the mountain in a violent avalanche. And here’s a question and story to share with you as the reader:

 

First the question (and it is ok to post in the comment section and remain anonymous):

What was the weirdest exam you have ever taken in school or college? How was it structured? What about the content- was it relevant to what you learned? How were the questions formulated and how difficult were they?

 

While there were a couple instances where I formulated an exam where some sections were difficult to a point where I in the end had to throw the sections out and give the students some extra points (for the former students I taught English at the University of Bayreuth, you should have an idea what I’m referring to), as a student pursuing a teaching degree, I encountered an exam that was so bizarre, that even as a teacher would lose face if this was given in a lecture. This was known as the Tailored Exam.

 

The object of the tailored exam: a week before the exam, students get to choose a selected amount of questions to be inserted into the exam. These exam questions are based on the questions provided during the semester, sometimes in the PowerPoint presentations.  As soon as the questions are chosen, the students choose the point value for each question. This type of exam resembles ordering a meal deal at a fast food restaurant where you choose the burger as well as the size of French fries and soft drink you want.  And while this tailored exam does help the students narrow down the content needed to be studied before the exam (because the questions are already given, directing the students to the topics where they need to concentrate on), there are several drawbacks to this type of exam.

 

First of all, students have the tendency to select the easiest questions and reformulate them to their liking, thus leaving out the most relevant information needed for their studies, let alone their careers. This is similar to an exam for students of medicine, where a question on the different blood types outweighs the procedure to remove an inflamed appendix. Both are important, but if you don’t know how to conduct an appendectomy the proper way…… Taking the easiest way out through easy questions is delaying the inevitable, which is the real-time praxis. And if a person cannot handle the problems facing them in their profession, this shortcut will come back to haunt them.

Secondly, tailoring the exams to their needs will allow for a debate among the students as to which questions should be in and which ones are to be omitted- an argument that is a waste of time, especially if they need the time possible to prepare for the exam. And as for the teacher’s credibility….

Last but not least, while the teacher may find it easy to correct the exams, his/her credibility would vanish like water vaporizing from a pot at 200° Celsius, for students would dictate how the exam should be structured, and by allowing them to do this with the teacher’s consent, the authority to control the students’ wishes would be gone. And no matter how a teacher redeems him/herself (by adding trick questions or reformulating them to make them difficult for students to answer), his/her reputation would be lost for good. As a chain reaction, word about the tailored exam would spread, and the population of the student body would be divided up into those going to the teacher for an easy grade and those complaining about the fairness of the exam provided by the teacher and the institute he/she is employed at.  Not a way to end a working relationship between the university and the teacher should he/she decide to move on to another academic institution after two years or even retire.

In the 14+ years I have been teaching English, including seven at three different universities, I have found that the best way to win the hearts and minds of the students is to challenge their thinking but also be honest and fair to them. After all, as I have witnessed, students will best remember you for these characteristics in addition to your humor and creative ways to get them to listen. In the case of one of the universities I taught, I accumulated a vast number of student veterans- those visiting my classes semester after semester- as a result of this quality of teaching.  By having the students make the exam for the teacher, that teacher is diluting this quality of teaching that is badly needed in today’s schools and academic institutions. The end result is the teacher losing all the respect from the students and a career becoming short-lived.

There are many other variants of exams to give to the students, such as multiple choice, fill-in the blanks, short answer questions, essays and even the hybrid forms- the last of which I prefer. These plus a list of subjects students should expect to see in the exams will encourage them to go through the materials thoroughly and know the essentials. But tailored exams- the ones made (or should I say dictated by the students) is a no-go, unless you are a teacher wanting a quick exit from your career. But even then, there are other ways of getting out of it that are more honorable. It is also more honorable to challenge the brains of your students and get them to learn the most important things for their future careers.

So from the heart of this teacher to the hearts and creative minds of other teachers out there: No tailored exams, please! You will do yourself and your students a big favor and give education a better reputation.

 

Thank you and best of luck formulating your next exam, keeping this in mind.

Mr. Smith

 

Note: If you have some stories of exams that you wrote that were unorthodox but are considered useful for other teachers to use, or if you have some tips on how to create an exam that both the students as well as the teacher can benefit from, put your suggestions here in the comment section or send them to Jason Smith at the Files at: Flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. These ideas will be forwarded on in a different article as the Files continues to look at education in Germany vs. the US, based on the author’s experience as well as other factors influencing the educational landscape.  Thanks and looking forward to your ideas and thoughts. 

In School in Germany: Bilingual Teaching from the School’s perspective: An interview

In the last entry on bilingual teaching  in Germany, the author discussed the benefits and drawbacks of teaching a subject in a foreign language from his own experience, as well as tips for teachers willing to and planning on teaching a bilingual class in the future. To summarize briefly, bilingual teaching can be beneficial if teachers are willing to devote the extra time needed to prepare the materials and teaching methods for each session and if students are able and willing to communicate and learn the vocabulary in a foreign language. It does not mean that it is not doable, for a subject in a foreign language has its advantages, which includes looking at aspects from another point of view and implementing the language in other fields to encourage learning through Context Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL). It just means that one needs to be creative with lesson-planning, working with the restrictions of time per session (each one has 45 minutes unless it is a block session as mentioned here), and the language competence on the part of the students.

But what about from the view of the other teachers who taught the bilingual module: what do they think of bilingual teaching in the school?  This question was one of two that I and two other colleagues at the Gymnasium (where I’m doing my Praxissemester), and one from another Gymnasium 25 kilometers away, pursued in a project we did for the university on bilingual teaching in the English language. This consisted of observing the bilingual classes in English, such as History, Geography and Music, both as a teacher (like I did in history), as well as an observer. Then the interview was conducted with the teachers to gain an insight on what they think of teaching a subject in a different language- namely in English instead of their native German language.

The interview comprised of ten questions, featuring three closed (multiple choice), one hybrid and six open-ended questions. The open-ended questions were categorized and ranked based on how often the answers came about in one way or another.  Seven teachers from the two Gymnasien participated in the interview- five from my Gymnasium and two from the other Gymnasium where my colleague did hers. Of which, four teachers were interviewed directly, whereas the remaining three completed the interview questions in writing for time and logistic reasons. None of the participants were native speakers of English, but came from the fields of history(1), sports(1), geography (1), foreign languages(1)  natural science (1) and music (2).

After tallying the data and categorizing the answers, we came to the following results, which will be summarized briefly here.

1. College Degree, Further Qualifications and Interest

While bilingual education in the English language is best suited for those whose Lehramt degree includes the lingua franca, only five of those asked actually received a degree in English; the other two did not but took additional classes to improve their English skills  for the class.  As a supplemental question, despite bilingual modules being obligatory, all but two of those asked volunteered to teach the class in English with most viewing bilingual teaching as either for the purpose of interest in learning the language and the culture of Anglo-Saxon countries or a chance to improve on their career chances, or both.

 

2. Preparation and Teaching Bilingual Classes

As a general rule, one spends twice as much time learning a subject in a foreign language than it is in his native tongue. There was no exception to the rule with regards to preparing for a bilingual class in the English language. When asked how much time it took to prepare the module in comparison to the regular classes, all seven respondants mentioned that it took much longer than normal to prepare for a class in the foreign language. Factors influencing this included what had been mentioned in the previous article: lack of education materials already published, resulting in finding alternatives to teaching the subject to the students. This included using audio/visual aid in the form of films, YouTube videos and the internet to enhance listening skills and foster discussion, as well as creating self-made materials, such as worksheets and other activities to enhance vocabulary and reading skills. Two of the respondants even required students to do presentations in English.  This promoted the variance of the teaching styles used in class- namely frontal teaching, individual and group work and demonstrations, which encouraged students to learn more on their own than having the teachers present their topic in frontal form, which is the most traditional, but sometimes one of the most boring, if students are not encouraged to participate in the discussions.

 

3. Results

This question requires some clarity in itself. Both schools offer foreign language classes that students are required to take in order to graduate. Prior to the introduction of the module by the state in 2009, they were the only two that offered bilingual classes in English and other languages, a tradition that has been around for almost 50 years and is still strong to this day. Like on the university level, students focus on skills pertaining to reading, listening, writing, grammar, oral communication, presentation and real-life situations, all of whom are tested regularily. An article on the different tests and their degree of difficulties students face will be presented in the Files soon.  These skills are implemented in the different subjects through the bilingual module with another one being developed- the ability to acquire specific vocabulary from certain subjects- a process known as Content Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL).

The question about the results for the teachers to answer featured an overall ranking of whether and how students improved their skills through the bilingual module and the grading scale in terms of the above-mentioned skills, minus presentations and real-life situations. On the scale of one to six (one being outstanding and six being worse), the overall grade average for both schools was between 2,9 and 3- equivalent to the grade of C in American standards. While grammar skills were rarely covered in the bilingual module, according to the interviews, the reading and listening skills were the strongest, while the writing skills were the weakest. Communication in English varied from group to group, making it difficult to determine how well the speaking skills were in comparision with the rest. In either case, despite having several outlyers on each end, the performance of the students in the bilingual module is the same as in a foreign language class, according to the accounts stated by the interviewees. This leads to the question of how to improve the curriculum in terms of quality so that the students and teachers can benefit more from it than what has been practiced so far after the first year of initiating the modules.

 

4. Suggestions for Improvement 

The final observations of the English bilingual modules can be found in the question of whether it makes sense to continue with the scheme and if so, what improvements could be made. While it is clear that the module program was introduced in Thuringia, and many schools are introducing them into their curriculum, if imagined that the program is not compulsory but only optional, all but one of the six respondents replied with yes, with one being omitted for technical reasons. Reasons for continuing with the bilingual educational module in the classroom include the opportunity to improve communication in English, learn new vocabulary, be flexible with teaching methods and materials, and combine the English language and the subject into one.

Yet in its current shape and form, vast improvements need to be made, according to all seven respondents. The majority (five) of the seven respondents would like to see some more English classes being offered to them so they can improve their language and communication skills before entering the classroom to teach the subject in the English language. This coincides with the observations made by the author while sitting in the classroom on several occasions and helping them improve on some aspects of the language outside of class. While some classes are available through external institutions, like the Volkshochschule (Institute of Continuing Education), more funding for programs to encourage teachers to enhance their language skills are needed in order for the bilingual module to work. The same applies to CLIL training to determine how the subject matter should be taught in the foreign language and what teaching methods are suitable for use in the classroom.  Not far behind in the suggestions include more materials that coincide with the curriculum, including worksheets and books, something that was observed from the author himself after teaching history in the English language. While teachers have the ability to be creative and produce their own worksheets, many are of the opinion that in the foreign language, more preparation time is needed for that, something that was mentioned in the interview by a couple respondents.

 

5. Fazit

After a year of teaching the module, the teachers of both schools find the bilingual classes in the English language to be worth the time and investment, for despite the fact that their handicap is not being a native speaker of English and having some difficulties in communicating in the language, thus causing some misunderstanding between the teacher and the students at times, they see the module as a win-win situation. Students in their opinion can obtain the vocabulary and other skills needed from their respective fields and implement them in future classes, or even for the exams they need to take in the 10th grade year. For them, they see the bilingual module as an opportunity for them to gather some experience and confidence in the communication in English. Yet, more support is needed in order for them to become even more successful and the students to profit from their teaching in a foreign language. This is something that was observed from my personal experience teaching the module, communicating as a native speaker of  English.  This leads to the question of whether the students have the same opinion about this as the teachers do. This will be presented in the next installment.  However……

 

6. Suggestion and support needed….

Thuringia is not the only state that offers the bilingual modules in a foreign language. Many states in Germany have already introduced bilingual education in their school curriculum, either as a whole (like in North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria) or through individual schools- both private or public.  How are the subjects taught bilingually? Do you have any modules or are the classes offered in English for the whole school year? What teachers do you have for bilingual education in the school: are they native speakers, Lehramt students, etc.? And what suggestions do you have for improving the bilingual curriculum if your school has tried the bilingual curriculum for the first time, as was the case in Thuringia?

Leave your comments here or on the pages entitled The Flensburg Files or Germany! You can also contact the author of the Files, using the contact details under About the Files. Your opinions do matter for the teachers who are planning on teaching bilingual classes in a foreign language in the future.

 

The author would like to thank the participants for your useful input in the interview, as well as three assistants for helping out in the interview and questionnaires. You have been a great help.