End of Term Exams in the Charlotte Mason Method

Final exams. What memories does that phrase bring to your mind? Too often final exams are approached like evil dragons that students must occasionally slay. And too often a student prepares for the fight much like a foolish knight who frantically stuffs down his throat all the healthful foods that he has neglected for so long, vainly tries to polish his rusty sword, and seeks a friend who might know the best shortcut to conquering the ferocious beast. Only in our case the student probably begs the teacher to tell him what will be on the test and then stays up all night cramming the necessary facts into his short-term memory. Sound familiar?

Charlotte Mason summed up this futile effort: “The schoolboy ‘crams’ for an examination, writes down what he has thus learned, and behold, it is gone from his gaze for ever: as Ruskin puts it, ‘They cram to pass, and not to know, they do pass, and they don’t know’ ” (Vol. 1, p. 155).

Final exams, or end of term exams, should not be approached like a beast to be conquered. They should be a natural part of learning that reveals to both the teacher and student alike what ideas have become a part of the child’s life, what living thoughts the child has assimilated as his own.

In the Charlotte Mason method, end of term exams consist of one or two questions on each book that was read during the term. (Usually a term is 12 weeks.) No last-minute review is given. No cramming is possible or necessary. If the student has employed the habit of attention on an interesting living book, has been required to give immediate narration after one reading, and has participated in pre-reading review narrations (like we described in last time’s post) throughout the term, he or she will be ready for these types of exams.

Want some specifics? Your exams should use open-ended narration questions just as you do for immediate narration or pre-reading review narration. Here are some examples taken from Volume 3:

  • “Tell the story of . . .”
  • “What have you noticed (yourself) about . . .?” (for example, a spider)
  • “Tell about . . .”
  • “Tell all you know about . . .”
  • “Describe a journey in . . .” (for example, Northern Italy)
  • “Describe your favourite scene in . . .” (for example, Macbeth)

Just complete the question to make it relate to the books you read during the term. If you read the story of Daniel in the Old Testament, you might word the question like this: “Tell the story of Daniel.” If you read about the Mississippi River, you might ask the student to “Describe a journey on the Mississippi River.”

Set aside a few days or an entire week for end of term exams. Exams should take the same amount of time a regular lesson does during that day. Instead of the usual lesson, give the exam question and allow the student the usual lesson’s amount of time to answer it. Younger children can answer their exams orally or do a mixture of oral and written answers. Older children should write their answers to the questions.

That’s it. No teaching to the test. No last-minute reviews. No cramming. No dragons to slay. Just an honest assessment of what your child has really learned. And isn’t that what we really want to know?

So take advantage of all three Charlotte Mason methods for assessment: immediate narration (short-term memory), pre-reading review (intermediate memory), and end of term exams (long-term memory).

Since narration is such a vital component of the Charlotte Mason method, we’ll deal with it in more detail in an upcoming series.

If you missed any of the posts in this Charlotte Mason Assessment series, you can read them here on our blog.


  1. How can you encourage a child to narrate without resorting to a power struggle? In our local CM group, some of the moms have expressed frustration that their children don’t want to narrate, especially something that the mom has read out loud. Alternate types of narration, like doing a skit or drawing a picture, can help but there is not time for that every time.

  2. Should we go back to a written narration and clean it up for a second draft? Never? Sometimes? Usually?

    • IInitally, no. One should not re-do their narration. The purpose is to extract what they remember and not a grammar/ compostion lesson. I am now utilizing my daughter’s written narration as a springboard to composition. she’s 11.5 and we go over the original or ‘first draft’ together; forming proper paragraphs, spelling, sentence structure, etc. She finally types the final draft and we put it in her book of centuries since they’re typically on history or biographies or inventions. It her second history rotaion and this produces something she can be proud of. It takes time, but it’s still a short and sweet transition to composition.

  3. I daily read aloud to my children who range in age from 16 to 3. My question is about having them narrate from the readings for which they are all present.

    Should I stop more frequently for the younger ones? Perhaps just a paragraph or two for the 6 year old, and then read further before stopping to ask to hear from the older ones 13 and 16? Should I read an entire chapter before calling on anyone to narrate?

    I have a difficult time knowing how much to read and how much to expect from my younger ones. Anyone else with a wide age range have ideas for me?

  4. What suggestions do you have for facilitating narration within a large family? (ie. 7 children 10 and under)

    I am planning on transitioning my ten year old from only verbal narration to written narration via dictation, what guidence can you give for that process?

  5. Found this post three years later, but it was so very helpful I still wanted to say, Thank You :o)

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