talk to me about exams and evaluating children's responses, please

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  • joyinktm

    Any long-term CMers who can talk with me about evaluating the resposes that are received at exam time and determining if they are sufficient or not?

    I am very comfortable with the methods and principals in this way of teaching and have enjoyed it for a few years with our children. 

    Looking at a book, say A Child’s History of the World, or one of J.Fulbright’s science books, how do you determine what you want the child to know after reading through this book?  And, I mean, teaching through this book, for a younger-elem.-age student, complete with narrations and a few nifty activities, notebook pages and all that.

    WIth the CM method, am I allowed to want them to learn a certain thing, or am I supposed to just put the good, living books out there, and they’ll learn good from it.  That doesn’t seem to make sense logically.  I am not offering a student-led education, meaning they get to pick what appeals to them and just remember that.  That doesn’t seem adventageous to the student’s education.

    Once I determine what is appropriate for them to have remembered from the year, what if they don’t remember that at the end, in the exams?  The fault lies with me, I guess.  So, maybe my question is more in how to determine what should be appropriate for the student to know from the book we are reading?

    Thanks to anyone who has takes the time to think through this with me or give me some of their experience.



    I too, am wondering the same thing.  I am very new to CM and wondering how to make sure they are learning the key things that they need to learn, while still using narration for exams instead of worksheets.  It sounds great, would love to hear what others do.


    Richele Baburina

    Hi Michelle and Joy,

    We have happily used CM style exams for our second year now.  I hope to respond in detaileither tonight or tomorrow evening when our children are in bed.  Charlotte expounds on exams quite nicely in Vol. 6 A Philosophy of Education if you have it.  I hope to give you some “living examples” though.


    I have read that part of that volume, and am not really looking for examples, unless you are saying that these are what you believe would be an “excellent” example, a “good” example, and a “fair” example. 

    I am looking about how to evaluate the narrations I receive, so I know if they learned enough. 

    Then I kind of decided that I would need to look at the book and have a goal of what was deemed necessary for them to grasp and give back from the passage.  This is more dealing with science/history than with stories/Aesops, from which I get very detailed, long-winded examples from my children.


    If this is helpful to anyone, I got the following reply via email from a long-term CM-style mother.  It was helpful to me in realizing I needed to cement down some goals as to what was important to me to accomplish from this material, and then work toward that end. 

    She has a blog,, where she often talks about CM philosophy and practical usage.


    I think that since I started out with the CM method and giving her style of exam later with older children, I am at a disadvantage to answer your questions. I popped over to the Ambleside page that I linked to on exams and I thought perhaps this thought fit at least part of what my gut was telling me about your situation.

    From Ambleside Online:”The purpose of this kind of testing is two-fold. First, knowing that they will be required to narrate and know in the future increases attention beyond the moment. You probably have to work through a few exams before this idea begins to sink in. The second purpose of the test is for the teacher. What books are not working? In what areas have we failed to meet our goals? I always learn things from the exam that are not evident in day-to-day work. Even Charlotte Mason admitted that sometimes they chose a poor book, and the exam results always showed it.”

    I have always felt with my children that when they did poorly on a test or exam in this case it was a reflection on me in some way. We either didn’t cover the material thoroughly or it was not presented in such a way that it stuck. I have rarely seen in my kids a lack of trying hard. That would be a whole different ball game. You need to determine in your children if you think it is a lack of good habits that led to not remembering the information or if honestly it was just not something they took to heart. If it was an important concept and they don’t remember, you will know to adjust what you cover next term. If it was a bad habit, you could focus on exercising whatever good habit you want over the next term and see if it helps. Careful reading is a skill that takes a long time to develop. Some children are not auditory learners either and it takes multiple stabs at something before they “get it”. I have one very visual-spatial learner so reading aloud wasn’t the best way to share information. He had to see it and perhaps touch it in order to sound the information down into his memory.

    As far as coming up with goals, I try to leave them as concrete as possible. For instance with my boys when they were younger, I always had some idea of why we were using particular books and resources and activities. One year I wanted them to learn how to write a complete sentence with capital letters and punctuation. We worked on using complete sentences every week in our dictation and copywork. They practiced writing complete sentences in their written narration for all subjects. If they had come to the exam and not been able to write complete sentences, I would know that we needed to still keep that as a goal. Fast forward to their last exam, I had the goal for my high school age son to really understand the quadratic equation. Part of his math exam was to explain and demonstrate the quadratic equation to his dad. If he had failed to be able to do that task, I would know that we needed to review and have him try again at the end of next term.

    You might want to check out Appendix III at this link:[Moderator’s note: Ambleside Online has a site license that says links are only allowed to their home page and then only with permission. We removed the link to honor their wishes.] It gives you some concrete examples of goals for children between 6 and 12.

    The key to my exam questions is to know ahead of time, even at the very beginning of the term, what I expected them to know and then use that premise to write the exam question. In the example of your science book, if  I had the goal of their knowing generally about the universe or our solar system, I would make sure that on a regular basis the boys were narrating in various ways what they know generally about the solar system. If I expected them to know the planets and some facts about each planet, we would point our study in the direction of each planet. If you thought you had covered the material sufficiently for them to meet your overall goals, you would write your exam questions in such a way that they could demonstrate in some way their understanding of the material. My opinion: If they failed to meet your goal, you then decide if you are seriously needing them to know the facts and cover it again. Or else you might casually cover it in a read aloud and then have them narrate the material back at a later time.

    I feel like Charlotte Mason’s formula for not only teaching but then following up on material has given me the freedom to use our books and texts in a way that makes sense. Anyone can learn facts for a test but if they are expected at the end to demonstrate their understanding of the facts, that is a whole different ball game.

    Keep the thought in mind: Show what they know, not test what they don’t know. It is a difficult concept when we are accustomed to the usual multiple choice, fill in the blanks type test. There is a time and a place for those kinds of tests and I use them regularly in their math courses and vocabulary texts but when it comes to the end of the term exams, I usually go for the more open ended, no right or wrong type questions. Honestly, I rarely put a question on my exam that I don’t already know they know the answer too. That is not the purpose of the CM style exam.

    I don’t think this is child-led learning. I chose the goals, the books, the methods, and the exam questions. Within the materials my boys each take away different things and dig deeper into different topics. I think this is the beauty of covering so many books in a typical AO year. There is something for everyone as you found with your son and the Farmer Boy example. He may not have been tip-top in the science department but he was obviously paying attention to the literature selection. I find this with my boys as well. Some exams are blah and some shine. It just depends. I use the exams as a tool to knowing the hearts of my boys and to see further where we need to focus and/or improve.

    Can you use some of the questions that others have used before you as a way to see how your children do with questions that have been tested with other children? There are plenty of examples of exam questions for the AO books used. Lindafay ( has really great exam questions for the basic AO books for each year. I might take her lead for the next exam for books you share in common.

    Okay, that is the end of my really long reply. J

    Hope it helps you. I think you are on the right track.

    Doug Smith
    Richele Baburina

    Hi Joy and thanks for sharing the letter.  Like Barb, goals are key for us in evaluating our terms (exams) and year as a whole. 

    My exam questions are geared toward narration.  For example, an end of year history question was phrased:  “In studying the history of Britain, we learned about King Alfred the Great.  What made King Alfred a great king and not simply a good king?”

    If any of you are interested in seeing our family’s goals by subject you can fiind them here:   (hth, Richele)

    Home School Goals by Subject


    Thank you, Doug and Richele, for your replies and the links.  I am going to check them out when I have a chance later today.  I appreciate your taking the time to get back with me.


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