Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Pathways for Teaching

In the minds of many students (and in the case of children, their parents), two questions are constantly lurking –

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

I believe teachers should routinely answer these questions, but how best to frame those answers? As a general principle I would suggest that pupils will gain confidence if they have a clear, honest perception of their progress, and goals which are detailed and encouraging.

Graded exams can offer one way – and an important framework – for pupils to gain the meaningful, quantative answers that help foster confidence.

While exams are certainly not without their issues, most of the concerns I see raised relate more to their misuse than to their appropriate use. 

In this article I will consider both, and offer a personal perspective on some of the most common concerns. And in conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the question: Graded Exams – Friend or Foe?

What is the Point of Exams?

“How well am I doing”, and “How can I improve?”

There are a number of ways in which pupils’ fundamental questions can be answered.

  • Some answers are essentially relative and subjective :

Players can reflect on their own progress, comparing their present level with that from a year or more ago. And teachers can support this with regular, clear feedback.

Players can take part in concerts, gaining feedback from others, including the family and friends who make up the audience. They can embrace the Active Repertoire Challenge, and see a clear overview of their progress.

  • Some answers are still relative but more objective :

Players can take part in competitions or festivals, formal or otherwise. Here their playing is assessed relative to that of other players, but with an objective outcome in the form of a mark, commendation or placement.

  • But how about answers which are concrete and objective? :

Graded exams provide an assessment of playing that is objective and made on the basis of concrete, fixed criteria – benchmarks which are widely recognised and understood.

Graded exams thus offer a uniquely powerful way for players to understand, interpret and appreciate their ongoing musical progress, get independent feedback about areas for future development, and ultimately develop greater confidence.

However, any benefits to be derived from taking graded exams can, as we shall see, quickly be undermined where they are misused.

But before considering how this happens, let’s first address:

Issues for Exam Boards

For graded exams to fully succeed in providing useful answers to the questions “How well am I doing”, and “How can I improve?”, certain prerequisites need to be in place:

  • There needs to be musical breadth and balance within the selected repertoire, and consistency in the levelling of pieces;
  • Supporting tests (including music theory requirements) need to be musically relevant and varied, but fundamentally consistent for all candidates, and with sufficient parity between accredited examining boards;
  • The exam needs to give a rounded assessment of attainment, including progress in areas of weakness as well as affirmation of strengths;
  • There needs to be a published marking scheme which provides clearly defined expectations and bench-marked standards;
  • There needs to be consistency of examining, with high standards applied in the appointment, training, moderation and support of examiners;
  • The examinations need to be conducted effectively, with constant standards for booking appointments, venue access and facilities, quality pianos, and stewarding that is attentive and professional;
  • Feedback needs to be positively and clearly written, affirming achievement, giving helpful suggestions for improvement, matching published criteria;
  • Results should be checked, verified, moderated, and there should be a fair, meaningful appeals process.

When something goes amiss with any of the above, it can be frustrating and disappointing for pupils, parents and teachers.

But as the list above shows, delivering a perfect exam experience every time is a formidable challenge. When issues arise, it always helps to address them with friendly politeness and professional respect.

Misuse by pupils, parents and teachers

Let’s break down a few areas where teachers, parents and pupils themselves can misuse the graded exams.

The Teacher’s Focus: Curriculum

Although most exam boards stress that their syllabi shouldn’t be used as a comprehensive curriculum or complete programme of study, too many teachers ignore this advice, taking their students straight from one grade to the next without exploring the broader, wonderful world of music.

This is surely one of the most serious misuses of graded exams.

When taking a graded exam, many important musical activities (for example, playing by ear, from memory, from chord notations, accompanying others or playing as part of an ensemble) are not assessed, either because they aren’t included, or because they are optional.

We would surely think it amiss were a teacher to give their students the option between developing either their aural acuity or their reading ability… an exam syllabus mustn’t ever be misused to limit pupils’ holistic musical development.

Regardless of syllabus content, teachers committed to providing broad and balanced programmes of study for their students will want to adequately and evenly address all Three Treasures of Musical Learningwhich you can read more about here.

A good exam syllabus should not only support these goals, but can enrich learning with up-to-date, high-quality, inspiring musical content. Happily, the major exam boards all succeed brilliantly here.

Validation

Graded exams have equal value for any musician, and not just those that teachers think likely to gain a distinction. They exist for the candidate’s benefit, not the teacher’s.

As teachers we must guard against the temptations of restricting access to just our most able students, for using pupil results to bolster our reputation or ego, or for shaping our studio priorities around exam success.

Nor should exam results, or the choice of exam board, be used as a way to judge our colleagues in the profession. Too often I have encountered teachers who take another teacher’s choice of board as indicative that they set lower standards, or that they offer too narrow a curriculum.

Quite simply these aren’t helpful or safe assumptions; however lazily we slip into them, we must make a renewed effort not to.

Parental Expectations

Many teachers will have met parents whose sole interest in their children’s musical development seems to be focused on the acquisition of exam certificates.

In my studio, I explain that progress is ongoing towards the support tests at the next level, but that work on the specific exam pieces will only begin once this other preparation is well advanced, and in particular once scales and keys are known. This usually allows plenty of time for other musical adventures!

There are so many valuable aspects to any child’s artistic, cultural and creative development. Recognising how learning an instrument can truly enrich children’s lives and learning, teachers can find it frustrating when parents are seemingly unconcerned with these powerful and important benefits.

There needs to be an understanding that the best results in grade exams are generally only available to the player who is taking a broader interest in music.

Encouraging a lifelong love of music should be the higher goal that we can all agree to aspire to, for ourselves and our children. Exams only have value in so far as they support this higher goal.

Pupil Motivation

Teachers might assume that stressed pupils, over-tested in school, will have little interest in also taking exams on their instrument. But this is not necessarily the case; our assumptions can prove to be just that: our assumptions.

All players, teachers and parents do well to understand the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – which  I explain in detail here – and pay close attention to the delicate but important balance between the two.

Because this balance can be so personal and particular, generalisations can cause genuine harm.

Assuming that entering a graded exam will motivate a student is as mistaken as assuming that it won’t.

I have found that the parents of children are usually able to offer uniquely helpful insight here, and I’m learning not to think that as a teacher I always know better!

Interpreting Results

Perhaps the most important moment in the graded exam process is the arrival, and interpretation, of the results. Teachers, pupils and parents will all have their expectations, and the actual results might prove to be:

  • Higher than expected;
  • Exactly as expected; or
  • Lower than expected.

Realistically, it is unlikely that in all cases the results will exactly match everybody’s expectations! So how do we respond to disappointment or, equally, unexpected success?

There’s a thin line between using an assessment to celebrate achievement, and using the same assessment as a stick. Instead of counting up the many marks awarded, some regrettably focus on the few that were lost, and use this to chastise themselves, their children, the teacher, or the exam board.

It always helps to remember that some will “rise to the occasion” while others won’t perform their best under pressure. And I find that pupils’ own views of how an exam went are often very wide of the mark. In fact, astute teachers will recognise that every single lesson offers a microcosm of these phenomena.

Providing a context for results

I recommend using the published mark scheme and doing “mock exams” a couple of times in the lead up to the big day.

Shared reflection between teacher and player – comparing the marks and comments from the “mock exams” with the actual results – can be rewarding for all involved, opening a window of understanding through which exam results can be more reasonably interpreted, and drive future progress.

Such reflection can fuel a series of wonderful developments:

  • the professional development and ongoing refreshment of the teacher’s skills;
  • the informed involvement and positive engagement of parents;
  • the burgeoning confidence and realistic self-assessment of the player.

Taken together, these can thus provide the concrete and objective answers which every player deeply needs:

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

Conclusion

So are graded exams a friend – or foe?

I believe unequivocally that they are our friend – and that precisely for this reason we must never abuse them.

And I sincerely hope that in this short article I have provided suggestions which will help all involved in the process – players, teachers, parents, examiners, stewards, exam boards – make the very most of this shared friendship.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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