There’s been a pretty negative atmosphere at school during the last week, and there’s one reason why: exam week. It’s the students’ final exams before the end of semester, a time when stress levels peak for pupils and teachers alike. Luckily for us foreign teachers, we are only in charge of one written exam. Apart from that, we’re not too involved in the tests, even the English one. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely removed from the drama when it’s exam season. During our time at the school we’ve seen students crying, parents crying, arguments, breakdowns and complaints.
I’ve written about education in Korea before: that while there is no arguing with the high academic achievements of Korean students, there is just far too much pressure placed upon students which leads to intense stress and misery. And the exam period just reinforces all my beliefs about the faults of the Korean education system.
First and foremost is obviously the absurd amount of pressure placed upon the students to perform well. My parents always used to say to me ‘as long as you do your best, that’s all you can do’- this is a sentiment which I think all students should be told. Sure, it’s foolish to not work your hardest when you have important tests, but if you try your absolute best and still only manage to gain a low/average mark, then you’ve done all you could do. And in my eyes, punishing a child who has worked to the best of their ability is belittling and harsh. Some people aren’t as academically gifted as others: this is a fact which should be understood and accepted.
But from what I’ve seen in 99% of students, this isn’t the case. Even if they try their hardest, if they study from 8 am to 12 am, if they don’t score well they will suffer the wrath, and even worse, shame, of their parents. And it seems that it is only a very high score which is acceptable; I’ve spoken to students who’ve been distraught about how ‘badly’ they’ve done, when in fact they’ve scored in the 80% bracket. In my eyes, that’s a pretty admirable result. It’s one thing to be pressured to do well, but it’s another when ‘to do well’ means getting a close to perfect score.
Another thing which I believe has detrimental consequences is the fact that students keep their exam papers afterwards, and are allowed to ask the teachers the correct answers. Why is this a problem? Because it doesn’t allow students to relax after an exam, to actually feel relieved that they’ve finished. Instead, it causes even more stress and worry as they endlessly debate with their friends whether the answer ‘to number 2 was A or B’, and then go to argue with a teacher about the correct answer. I’ve seen it happen so many times- the second the bell goes, the English office is invaded by hyped-up students demanding the correct answers and either cheering or crying when they hear it. They then go home and study the exam paper again, anxiously working out how they performed. When an exam is over, it should be over. Keeping the papers just prolongs and intensifies stress.
Something I find very strange, and contradictory to everything else exam-related is the attitude of students when they’re actually taking the exam. I have invigilated numerous tests- multiple choice tests, writing tests, less-important 1st/2nd grade tests, and extremely important 3rd grade tests which determine which high school students are accepted into. And one thing I have seen in every case? Students finishing the test in half (or less) of the allowed time and then going to sleep. This behaviour totally goes against all of the stress in the lead up to and aftermath of exams, and I don’t understand it.
When I had tests in school, I would never have dreamed of going to sleep- if you finished early, then you’d check your answers again and again, to make sure you hadn’t made any silly mistakes. In Korea, I invigilated one exam in which after only 5 minutes, 50% of students had finished and gone to sleep. The first time I saw this, I walked round waking up the students, not understanding what was happening and wondering why the teacher in charge wasn’t taking control, and ensuring they were trying their best and checking their answers. Now, I’ve learnt not to bother. But I find it utterly absurd behaviour, especially in a country where there is such importance placed on the exams. How would the parents react if they saw their child give up and go to sleep 10 minutes into an exam? The only way I can understand it is to assume that the students are so tired and stressed from revising, that the minute they consider themselves finished, they can’t bear to go back over the exam, and sleep instead. If this is true, it shows even more how the extremity of exam pressure actually has a negative impact on their performance.
Finally, I wonder whether the ‘multiple-choice’ style of exams is the best choice. When I first realised that all exams are in this format, I admit that I thought the students had it easy. I would have loved multiple choice, instead of long 3-hour essay-style exams. But now, I’ve read numerous English exams… and in each one, I couldn’t answer some of the questions. The choices are always so ambiguous that there are often a couple of acceptable answers. And what are the consequences? Official complaints from parents when their child doesn’t get a mark which perhaps they deserved. Again, this is something I’ve witnessed again and again. And if foreign teachers find it hard to answer an English multiple-choice question, what chance do the students have?
After the past week, after seeing what chaos the exam season causes in Korea, I just feel sympathy towards the students. I’ve seen one girl crying for 2 hours over 1 mark which she lost, I’ve seen a parent come into school and do the same. My co-teachers have received phone calls on their personal numbers until 11 pm from irate parents who want to discuss their child’s test. It’s too much. Exams are important, yes. Other countries envy Korea’s academic results, yes. But where do we draw a line between enough and too much? How many students will have to suffer depression, anxiety, or in extreme cases even commit suicide before things change?
There has to be balance and perspective. I hope that my students perform well after their tests this week. But I also hope that if they don’t get that top grade they wished for, they don’t spend their evenings berating themselves and in tears. And more importantly, I hope other people around them don’t criticise them either.