Dealing with Poor Exam Answers

Recently someone asked me a question about end-of-term exams. In a Charlotte Mason school, end-of-term exams are given by asking the student narration questions over the books that he was reading during the term (12 weeks). It’s a great way to assess long-term retention.

I wonder if perhaps other Charlotte Mason homeschoolers might have the same question at this time of year, so I have posted it below. I hope the suggestions in my answer that follows will give you some helpful ideas.

“What does one do if your child cannot answer the exam question or just gives a very short answer?”

A poor exam answer would prompt me to check a few things:

  1. Am I faithfully doing the pre-reading reviews and post-reading narrations? If not, the student isn’t getting enough opportunities to perform the act of knowing and mental reinforcement.
  2. Did the student have trouble with all the books examined or only one? And along with that, Has the student been able to narrate easily from that book all term? If not, it might be the book.
  3. How was the student feeling on exam day? Fatigue, illness, or emotional stress could affect exam answers.

Some of the length of the student’s answer could also depend upon how the question was worded. Sometimes I have given a narration prompt and ended up with a short paragraph (or two sentences) in response. When I take a second look at the question and think about how I would answer it, then I realize that the question itself doesn’t leave a lot of room for a long response.

In short, I use poor exam answers as a learning experience for me, the teacher. After all, we are learning right along with our children—learning about history and science and math, yes; but also learning how to improve in our teaching abilities. If our children zipped right through every exam, we wouldn’t have any reason to stop and evaluate how we can do a better job as their educational guide. Exams offer a prime opportunity to continue to grow.


  1. I know that CM was a big proponent of only reading once before narrating. Were her students expect to study for their end of the year exams? Or did they just go in cold? If they studied how did they study?

    • Charlotte’s students did not do last-minute reviews or studying for the exams. Either they knew it — really knew it for themselves — or they didn’t. Here are some of Charlotte’s descriptions of exam week in her schools (from Vol. 6, p. 241):

      The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort.

      The teachers give the uplift of their sympathy in the work and where necessary elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars.

      These read in a term from one thousand to between two and three thousand pages, according to age and class, in a large number of set books; the quantity set for each lesson allows of only a single reading.

      The reading is tested by narration, or by writing on a test passage.

      No revision is attempted when the terminal examination is at hand; because too much ground has been covered to allow of any ‘looking up.’

      What the children have read they know, and write on any part of it with ease and fluency, in vigorous English. They usually spell well.

      During the examinations, which last a week, the children cover say from twenty to sixty sheets of Cambridge paper, according to age and class; but if ten times as many questions were set on the work studied most likely they would cover ten times as much paper.

      It rarely happens that all the children in a class are not able to answer all the questions set in such subjects as history, literature, citizenship, geography, science. But here differences manifest themselves; some children do better in history, some in science, some in arithmetic, others in literature; some, again, write copious answers and a few write sparsely; but practically all know the answers to the set questions.

  2. Do you know if exam questions were the same, similar, or different from the narration questions asked when the children were reading each work? Did exam questions cover the entire book or sometimes just a part of the book?

    • End-of-term exam questions were of the same type as regular narration questions in that they were open-ended, inviting the student to share what he recalled and what kind of relation he had formed. I’m not positive, but I believe the local teachers created their own regular narration questions as they guided the students through a book; the exam questions were sent to the schools. So it’s possible that a question might have been the same in both instances, but probably not often.

      End-of-term exams covered the portion of each book that had been read during the term. If an entire book had been read that term, the questions would cover the entire book. In many cases, Charlotte’s schools worked their way through a book slowly, spreading it out over several terms (and sometimes years). For example, in the lower grades Charlotte explained this process:

      “Certain pages, say 40 or 50, from each of the children’s books are appointed for a term’s reading. At the end of the term an examination paper is sent out containing one or two questions on each book” (Vol. 3, p. 272).

      You can find some sample questions, along with answers, in Volume 3, pages 272–299.

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