I’m not sure where this notion got started, but somehow there’s an idea floating around that Charlotte Mason “didn’t do tests.” Let’s set the record straight: Charlotte Mason gave exams at the end of every twelve-week term. In fact, she devoted an entire week to those exams three times a year.
And there are many good reasons for us to do the same in our home schools.
For the students, knowing that an exam week will happen can be good motivation for consistently paying full attention and giving best effort.
For the parent-teachers, holding regular exam weeks can help us stay on track and make sure we’re not getting lazy in our home schools.
Yes, exams can help us assess what our students remember from their studies, but we should already be checking on that all along the way. We should be requiring narrations and listening for comprehension and mastery with every reading; plus, the next time we get ready to read from that book, we should be asking for those pre-reading reviews. We should be staying on one math concept until the child grasps it with both hands and the light comes on for him. So in that respect, exams shouldn’t really reveal anything surprising; they are more about confirming what we already know about our students and where they are in their academic growth.
But exam week can be motivating for us in a different way. If we come to exam time and can’t think of anything to examine in a certain subject, that can be a wake up call: “Oh, I probably need to be more consistent doing that subject.”
Exams can also provide regular documentation of our students’ progress. Some states require periodic documentation as part of their homeschooling regulations. Having that set exam week every term can help you make sure you have those records on hand from regular intervals throughout the school year. Plus, it can just give you a nice portfolio of your students’ progress through your home school. In other words, exam week can be a helpful habit.
So let’s talk about what that week should be like. I want to discuss two aspects of exam week: the content of the exam questions and the scheduling of the exams. We’re going to divide this discussion into two parts in order to keep it manageable. Today we’ll talk about what exam week should sound like, what kinds of questions you should be asking. Next time we’ll discuss what exam week should look like, how it should play out over the week.
OK, let’s dive into what exam week should sound like.
I love how the questions Charlotte Mason used for exams align beautifully with her principles of respecting the child as a person while also holding him to a high standard. She expected the students to have paid full attention and to remember what they read and narrated, but she also gave them some personal freedom and choices. Exam week was a time in which each student could share the ideas and the knowledge that he had taken in and made his own.
Exams in Charlotte’s schools were not an extensive fact-regurgitation drill, as many of us think of exams. Charlotte’s exam questions were more like essay questions that also invited personal notes. For example, in history or Bible, the exam questions often gave a choice: Tell the story of this event or that event. In music study, the student could tell about his favorite piece by the composer who had been studied that term.
Let me go through a whole list of subjects and give you an idea of the types of exam questions that can be used for the different grade levels. These examples are taken from Examination programs that were used in Charlotte’s schools.
For reading, Charlotte’s homeschooled students were asked to read a passage that had been chosen by Father. (Exams can involve both of the parents. And sometimes it’s helpful to have another evaluator.) The selected read-aloud passage should vary in length and difficulty, depending on the grade level of the student. Younger children might be asked to read something short and simple; older students might be asked to read a leading article from a newspaper.
For handwriting and spelling, students can be asked to write anywhere from one phrase or sentence up to several lines from memory. It might be a portion from a poem they have worked on and memorized or a hymn they have studied and learned. Older students are also given a dictation passage to write without preparation.
Now, keep in mind that the goal of exam week is to celebrate progress and assess growth. Your attitude during that non-prepared dictation, for example, will do much to set the right atmosphere. These exam questions are not designed to poke and prod, looking for weak points, or worse yet, to trick the student into giving an incorrect answer. These exam questions are to encourage focused work during the term and give the child a sense of progress. Presenting what he has learned, the knowledge that the student has taken in and made his own, should give him a good sense of accomplishment. If he happens to misspell a word in that unprepared dictation passage, that’s not the focus of the test. The focus is how many words he does know—how he has grown over the past twelve weeks. So try to set a positive atmosphere and celebrate growth even as you encourage focused work.
All right, for Scripture memory, poetry, and hymn study, students are asked to recite poetry, hymns, and Bible passages. Again, shorter and fewer recitations for younger students up to longer and multiple passages for older students. Older students could also be asked to recite some Shakespeare that they have studied and memorized.
Foreign language questions encourage the students to use the language they are learning. So they might be asked to “Say what you can in French (or whatever language) about this picture”; or “Ask and answer six questions in French about this picture” or “this story.” Do you see how those types of questions are giving the student the opportunity to share what he does know, rather than digging around to find out random facts that he doesn’t know? It’s a huge difference! Older students might be asked to give an entire narration of a story in a certain language. They should also have some grammar questions about the foreign languages they are studying. A Latin exam usually includes translating a passage into English.
Handicrafts are part of exam week. For all the grade levels, their handicraft projects should be examined by an outside friend. Again, bringing in other people to give their feedback can be helpful, both for you and for your child.
Math exams should set a few questions that reflect where the students are in their math studies. But this isn’t a whole page of equations that they have to calculate in a certain time limit. The math exams are about understanding, about comprehension, not speed. Yes, they require and expect full attention, but they are not timed speed tests like some of us experienced in school.
In geography, students are often asked to describe a location that they have read about and studied that term. Middle-school students can be asked to also produce a corresponding rough sketch map to go with their descriptions. Older students can be asked to provide more detailed map sketches.
For history and Bible, as I mentioned, students can be given a choice: “Tell the story of this event or that event.” Older students can be given a quote from one of the books and asked to explain its context. They can also be asked to outline causes and effects or to summarize a choice and its consequences.
The science questions focus on a student’s telling all he can about a specific plant or animal, or explaining why a certain thing happens in the natural world. Older students have longer, more involved questions, such as, “What is a feather? Describe how the wings and the body of a bird are built for flight.”
For picture study, students are usually required to describe a certain picture by the artist they have studied.
Music study questions often invite the student to give personal thoughts about the music works that were studied. The amount of works and the method of sharing those thoughts can be leveled up or down according to age. So younger students could be asked to “Describe your favorite piece of music by (composer).” Middle students are asked, “What works of (composer) have you heard this term? Tell what you can about one of them.” Older students can be asked to write three lines on five of the music pieces they have studied. They can choose which five to write about.
Composition questions can be included for older students. Of course, written narrations of any subject can be used to evaluate composition skills, but focused composition exams should be reserved for those older students who are doing composition lessons—around high school age. Students can be asked to write a short story or some verses on a person, a science topic, or a key idea from their reading. They should show evidence of practical composition too; for example, an exam question might ask them to write a letter giving or accepting an invitation to a certain event.
Now, this is another subject in which Dad could have a role. If it’s a good fit, you might ask him to help you evaluate the child’s composition or other written answers. Sometimes we can be too hard on our students’ writing; sometimes we might be too lax. It can be helpful to have another opinion.
English grammar questions are for 4th grade and up. Those students could be asked to parse, or to parse and analyze, anywhere from a few selected words in two lines of poetry to a longer literary passage. Older students can also be asked to detail differences between words’ meanings and usage.
And for Charlotte’s students, exam week included demonstrations that showed progress in drawing, in singing, and in Swedish Drill. Feel free to include those subjects if you like.
Preparing Your Exam Questions
Now, that can seem like a lot of exam questions to prepare, but it’s really not that hard if you plan ahead. I find that it helps a lot to take some time the week before exams to put together the questions. I’ve tried making them up in the moment, right on the spot, but those aren’t usually my best effort. And I came to the conclusion that if I want my students to do their best during exam week, I should do my best too. And so should you.
All you have to do is go through each subject that you taught during the term and brainstorm possible questions or requirements. You can do a few each day during that week before, if that’s easier. Let’s simplify the process.
First, ease into it by making some of the simple decisions. What will you require?
For Scripture memory, poetry, and hymn study, look at the Bible verses, the poems, and the hymns that were learned this past term and select which pieces you want each student to recite.
For handwriting, pick a phrase or a whole recitation piece (depending on the age of the student) to be written from memory. For older students, you can also select a dictation passage that will be written.
Then contact a friend who is skilled in the handicraft the students learned this term and see if he or she is willing to evaluate the projects that were completed.
For picture study and music study, decide whether you want to specify a certain work to be described for each or to allow students to tell about their favorites this time.
For foreign language, choose a picture or a topic for the student to speak about in the selected language. If you have a student studying Latin, choose a passage to be translated.
For reading, decide which passage you want each child to read aloud.
See, all of those subjects don’t require you to come up with questions covering the content of the lessons. You’re just picking out suitable pieces, passages, or pictures. That shouldn’t take you too long. You might pick out the recitation and the handwriting pieces on Monday, and call your handicraft friend on Monday night; then take Tuesday to choose any specific pieces and pictures for music study, picture study, and foreign language and select reading passages.
That leaves you with the rest of the week to write content questions a few at a time. The subjects for which you will need content-specific questions are geography, math, history, Bible, and science. Now, you can tackle those questions two ways.
First, is focusing on one subject at a time. Look through the book(s) that your students read in that subject and start with questions for the youngest student. Those are usually just “Tell the story of . . . ” questions, and you can give two options. Remember, those questions were often “Tell the story of this event or that event,” giving the student a choice. Then while that subject is still fresh in your mind, continue to write questions for that subject, working your way up through the grades. You want to end up with about three questions per subject or per book for each student.
The second way to tackle the questions might work better for some of you. Rather than focusing on one subject at a time, you might focus on one student at a time. The advantage of going student by student is that you kind of get in a groove with the types of questions to ask for that age group. So you can easily work your way through the subjects and books, writing those same types of questions. Then pick the next student in age, review what his questions could look like, and write those across all the subjects or books he read.
Really, there are advantages to either approach. If you go student by student, you get a good feel for what types of questions to use, and you can just tweak the content according to the subjects you want to cover. If you go subject by subject, you get a good feel for the content that you want to cover, and you can just tweak the types of questions to fit each student’s age group.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Just choose the approach that works best for you.
If you are handwriting your exam assignments and questions, I recommend using index cards. Put one question per card, and label it with the subject and the student. That way you can easily sort the questions either way: by subject or by student.
So if you get the easy pieces, passages, and pictures selected on Monday and Tuesday of the week prior to exam week, that leaves you with three or four days to write content questions. You could write geography and math questions on Wednesday; history questions on Thursday; science on Friday; and Bible questions on Saturday. Or double some of them up. You get the idea.
The point is that preparing exam questions will take some time, but if you plan ahead you will be able to give those questions the careful thought that each student deserves.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Why wait until the week before exams? Why not work on the questions a little at a time throughout the term, or even write them all at once for the whole year?” You can do that, absolutely; but let me encourage you to hold those questions loosely. It is possible that you might make slower progress through a particular study than you had originally thought you would. And if your exam questions cover material you haven’t gotten to yet, you’ll just have to write different questions anyway. So, certainly, by all means, work ahead if you want to. Just make sure your prepared exam questions don’t pressure you into pushing your students through the material faster than is best for them.
If you want to see more sample exam questions that Charlotte used with her students, look in the back of School Education, pages 271–328. You’ll find lots of questions for various age groups over lots of different subjects, as well as some students’ answers to those questions.
The good news is that those of you who are using the prepared lesson plans from Simply Charlotte Mason for history, geography, and Bible or for Enrichment Studies will find exam questions already included in those plans. We’ve done that prep work for you, so you’ll always be ready for exam week. Check out the final week of lessons each term, and you will find customized exam questions for all of the different age groups. Our elementary arithmetic books have exam questions included too.
So that’s what exam week should sound like. Next time we will talk about how to use those exam questions: what the exam week looks like, what the schedule should be, and the logistics of doing exams with multiple students across multiple grade levels. Be sure to join me for part 2 next time.