Sunday, May 10, 2009

Unorthodox exam

Have you ever taken an exam on a scientific subject in the form of riddles or a song? I haven't, but I designed an exam just like that while still teaching in the university.

I was teaching Plant Taxonomy then and it's not one of your exciting, dynamic subjects, unlike Plant Physiology or Ecology. We were finishing up the course and the students had already studied the different Families of flowering plants. How to make the exam more challenging than the usual Multiple Choice or Fill in the Blanks questions? How to stimulate the students in visualizing processes and structures, in making comparisons so as to deduce relationships, in interpreting definitions?

First part of the exam: Still a Fill in the Blanks (relating to classification of fruits), but with a difference. It went like this:

1. The peanut is not a nut. It is a ______________.
2. The pineapple is neither a pine nor an apple. It is a _____________.
3. The coconut is not a nut. It is a __________.

And so on. You get the idea.

Second part of the exam: There is a Filipino folk song entitled "Bahay Kubo" (translation: "Nipa Hut"). Everybody knows this song because it's been taught to us since childhood. The students were asked to identify the Family to which each of the vegetables mentioned in "Bahay Kubo" belong (not necessarily in the order by which they are mentioned in the song). The exam room became filled with the soft (no cheating!) humming of singing students!

Third part of the exam: Instead of "Identify the blah, blah, blah" or a Matching Type test, I "let the different plant parts and processes speak" (personification) and the students identify who was speaking. A plant part became a queen sitting on a throne of green (ovary/fruit), another a traveler who finally settles in one place and finds true love there (the pollen), and so on.

There were other parts; some were standard (so as not to subject everybody to a complete traumatic experience), but those three sets of questions became the "talk of the town".

When the bell rang and the students submitted their test papers and filed out, most were chuckling and obviously enjoyed themselves, some asked where I got the questions, some commented that it's the weirdest exam they have ever had but they liked it. A few had knitted brows and were obviously unhappy (they were not prepared for "that kind" of exam).

In my entire teaching life, that exam stands out in my memory. It took me 2 weeks to perfect the test items, especially in the Identification test where I used personification. And when the test scores were computed, the results were gratifying, not only because the students got the right answers, but because they underwent an entire process of learning as they visualized/simulated, compared and contrasted, deduced, analyzed and made decisions. They might have forgotten the subject of Plant Taxonomy, but those learning skills would forever be with them.

Learning should be fun and an adventure. Subsequently, in my entire career as educator/trainer, I tried to always bear in mind that "We teach people, not subjects."


  1. Very inspiring! I absolutely agree you that learning is fun and adventure, as well as teaching! When I was teaching back in the Philippines, I treated this work as a hobby - not part really of earning money but teach young people to be a successful individuals - to give their share in planning their communities and of course to enjoy life to the fullest! Learning is a continuous and challenging process and the opportunity of going back to the university is something not to be missed!

  2. ...sorry, some missing words in my previous comments: "agree with you"..... "to be successful individuals - to have their shares in planning..."

    Nevertheless, I was able to share my thoughts that learning and teaching go hand in hand!

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