Sunday, 11 August 2013

Exam season

As of last week, I have finally finished all my exams. This is always a bit of a trying period, but that goes double here, considering I not only had to tangle with the additional difficulty of conducting them in a foreign language, but am also trying to cram as much Japanese enjoyment into my remaining time as possible, and it's been a little difficult to fully relax knowing that there was still work left to be done. Hell, even now, I still have the spectre of travel preparations looming over me. But we're not talking about that today.

No, I just want to say that I still find the Japanese exam system, or at least the one used by my school, to be totally vexing. I mentioned some of the details when I wasrunning the gauntlet last semester, but I think they deserve revisiting. For one, each exam is blocked in for only an hour. One single, paltry hour. This is insanity. It took me longer than that to write this blog post, never mind trying to bring together all the knowledge I have accumulated in a full semester's course. Even more bizarrely, both Enjoyably Study Korean exams could be comfortably completed within about fifteen minutes or so, leaving 90% of the class to sit aimlessly until the required 40 minutes had elapsed and we were allowed to exit the room.

At my Canadian university, the standard exam block is three hours, and that's always seemed about right. And even then, the exam itself is only one, admittedly large component of your final mark. Throughout the preceding weeks you'll be hit with some combination of essays, one-page assignments, presentations, quizzes, maybe a special project or something. Usually the final exam is worth 60% (although I've seen it as low as 20%), so you can't just write it off, but you can at least do poorly on the exam and still pass the course.

In Japan, however, the exam is often all you've got. Now of course this has the advantage of a drastically lesser workload during the semester, allowing you to schedule your studying around the countless other demands on your time, but you're also getting no feedback. If you've misunderstood something, you might never find out what your mistake was. You've got one hour. One attempt. And if you had a sudden crisis and couldn't revise, or woke up with a concentration-crippling fever? Bummer. I can't say for sure, but my experience elsewhere leads me to suspect that the concept of a makeup exam is not one that Japanese professors would be familiar with.

And as I've said before, there isn't even a clock on the wall, making time management a bit of a guessing game. A few of the topics from last semester's History of Japanese Thought were reiterated this semester, but I decided to challenge myself on the exam and write on different topics. It would be good practise, I thought, and would force me to look more deeply into material I had not yet mastered. So I went in, and managed to hammer out what I thought was a decently written, well-reasoned, mostly coherent explanation of Shoutoku Taishi's 17 Kenpou, and was feeling pretty good.

But just as I was readying myself for an eloquent concluding paragraph, the teacher announced that 40 minutes had elapsed, and anyone who was already finished was free to go. Of course I wouldn't expect myself to be done by then, not for an essay-writing exam designed to be completed in one hour by native speakers. I would, however, hope to be at least half-done by the halfway point, meaning I was severely lagging. I rushed out my final paragraph, abandoned my prior aspirations, and went with the Juugyuuzu again, because I knew for a fact that I could at least hit the most important points. My efforts basically amounted to a list and I didn't even have time to do a conclusion. It might be interesting if I could look back on last semester's exam and see how much my writing's improved, but still. Lame!

At least this method requires real output from the examinees, though. A distressingly high ratio of exams seem to be strictly multiple choice. Not just like a multiple choice focus, but literally that's the only type of question. As a student I'm a huge fan of multiple choice, because they're by far the easiest question type (followed closely by matching), but if I'm going to make wildly speculative generalizations about the future of an entire culture and nation of people, I would have to say that this is a roundly terrible system for Japan. Multiple choice, as we all know, requires next to nothing. Never mind that you automatically have a 25% chance of getting a question right even if you guess at random, you don't actually need to understand the correct answer. Hell, you don't even need to reproduce it. You just have to be able to recognize it. All that's required to do well is a ton of rote memorization, which is rather fitting, seeing as it's kind of systemic of, you know, the entire Japanese education system. (And remember, I went through a semester of Japanese high school and a year of Japanese university, taking native-level classes the entire time; I'm allowed to say that.)

As I say, though, it did work to my advantage for World of Philosophy, as skills like process of elimination are naturally perfectly transferable to the Japanese setting. Since the content was almost entirely things I learned in English years ago, I really had only two obstacles with which to contend: Terminology and kanji, there being some overlap between the two. I definitely could have brushed up on terminology a little more, since being able to outline the distinguishing characteristics of empiricism and rationalism is useless if I don't know which one I'm being asked about. Kanji, though, is not a problem I can breach with a few nights of cramming. There were times where I couldn't read the question, or the answers, or both, and in those cases there was nothing to be done. I was able to read a lot more than I expected to, which was gratifying, but if I pass, I'll be so super stoked.


I'm not going to say that the Japanese system of exams is wrong. That would be a little summary of me. If anything, the entire institution of standardized testing is wrong, and both the Canadian and Japanese systems are just equally stupid manifestations of a wider problem. Either way, it's just one more wrinkle to smooth out. One way or another, my time at Japanese university is now over, and I've got mixed feelings about that, but I can certainly say that I handled it the very best I could.

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