Step-by-step tutorial to CM Exams

Does the idea of giving exams terrify you? Here's a step-by-step tutorial to walk you through the process. Exams don't have to be scary!

The purpose of exams

Unlike many exams where the purpose is to find out what the child knows and does not know, Charlotte Mason exams instead are designed to showcase what the child knows.

They are not only an assessment tool for the parent, but also let the parent or teacher know what the students are remembering and connecting with.

Why is this important?

When we see what our children are connecting with and remembering, we can also then see what they are not remembering, with no stress to the child. 

We can also see any misconceptions that they might have developed over the weeks and months since the last time we worked on specific material.

Exams are a confidence boost for kids because they get to show off what they know.

The questions are broad enough that they can almost always recall at least some information. No more staring at a blank sheet of paper in dread desperately trying to remember the non-metals of the periodic table.

How to Give Exams Step-by-step

Let's walk through step-by-step how to give Charlotte Mason exams. It's easier than you think!


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step one: prepare the exams

But how do you come up with exam questions for your children? How do you know what sorts of questions are appropriate? If our only model is the example that we had in public school, how do we translate that to the very different educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason? How do we rephrase questions to be more along with Charlotte Mason was thinking?

This is where the primary sources come into play. We are lucky enough to have many copies of the Parents National Education Union programmes available to us as a model. (The PNEU was the organization that Miss Mason founded to administer her method to member homeschools and brick & mortar schools.)

The families of the PNEU received not only the plan for the term, (that is, what books and resources were to be used and activities that were to be done,) but also exam questions appropriate to the Form. 

Note: If  the terminology used in Charlotte Mason circles sounds like a foreign language, refer to this Beginner's Guide to CM Terminology.

Use these exam questions as your template for your own exams.

The first part of the file on archive.org is the program itself, but the second part is the exams that were sent out for that term. Each file on archive.org has at least Forms 1,  2,  3, and 4. Some of them also have Forms 5 and 6.

So we have plenty of examples of exams for students aged 6 through 14. but less for students ages 15 through 18.

Need a little hand-holding? Here's a step-by-step video walk-through of how to find the PNEU programmes and exams.

Step 2: Sub in exam information from your own resources

We can't just use the PNEU exam questions as written, however. Obviously when we change books many of the exam questions are no longer relevant to us.

That doesn't mean we throw the whole thing out; it just means that that we have to create our own exam questions based on the models.

Some questions we will be able to lift straight from the programmes. Questions like

  • Write a line of poetry from memory
  • Drawing: two kinds of wild fruits (from nature)
  • What music by Schubert have you heard this term? Say what you can about one of his (a) songs or (b) pieces for piano.
  • Reading: Father to choose unseen passage.

Some we will be able to use with only a small amount of modification.

  • Write in verse (which must scan), otherwise in prose, upon one of the following, (a) Prometheus, (b) General Gordon, (c) Wayland Smith, (d) Sir Francis Drake, (e) Puck.

Look at how many choices the students had! It wasn't simply write about A or B-- they were given five different topics that they could write about. This particular question was from Form 3, so ages 12 to 14.

It's simple enough to substitute the characters or situations we have read about in the last twelve weeks, no matter what books you are using. On this question, we have figures from mythology, from the biography read, from history, and from Shakespeare.

Remember that a term was twelve weeks long, so we don't want to go back further than that. It's tempting to let the terms drag out for five months if life has gotten in the way and you haven't gotten as much as you wanted to get done.

But rather than waiting until all of the material from the term has been worked through, and that comes six months down the road, instead simply call three months into your school year the end of the term no matter how much work you've actually gotten done.

Adjust your exam questions based on the material that you've actually gotten done within the last three months, not on what you had planned to get done.

step 3: spread the exam over several days

Give the exams spread across a week.

We want to keep the exams to about the same amount of time as we are allowing in our regular routine for each subject. If you are following the time tables or schedules from the PNEU or you have made your own, then you will still follow that plan for exam week.

But instead of doing your regular learning, you will be doing exams.

For Form 1, the student dictates all the answers except for the specific category of writing. For Form 2, ages 9-12, the students still dictate much of the answers, but can do some of the writing on their own.

What you don't want to do is let any student's slower writing ability impact the answers they're giving in the exams. So if your student struggles with writing, either written narrations or the physical act of handwriting, then you'll want to take dictation for him.

On the other hand, if a student writes freely and it's easier for her or for him to write than to tell the answers, then you will let the student write as much as they want.

The 12 to 14 year old, if they have no writing disability, should be writing as much of the exam as they can.

When spreading the exams over several days you will very likely get through the questions quickly. That will give a lighter week than a typical learning week so it also will make for easing into a break. 

Step four: One tip for giving the exam

Keep in mind that this is a new process for both you and your student.

If your child freezes, or gets frustrated, or wails, "I don't remember anything,"  or "I have no idea," this can be frustrating to us also. We think all of this time that we've spent the last three months learning this information is completely wasted.

Remember though that part of this can be performance anxiety, and the way to get through this is to not express disappointment or anger that they do not remember.

Now it might be that they legitimately don't remember, or it might be that they're just freezing from being put on the spot. Either way don't get angry with them.

Don't let them see disappointment.

This is not a reflection on you.

Remember that the purpose of exams is for them to show their knowledge, not for them to be caught out with what they don't know.

Simply say something like, "This is just like the narration that we've been doing. Can you tell me just one small thing from it?" If they can't, smile and say, "That's okay. We'll move on."

Don't make a big deal about it.

You want to ease their distress, minimize their stress, as much as you can.

One thing that I did find when I gave exams to my daughter was that if she could not narrate at the time that we went over the material, she rarely could narrate when we actually gave exams.

That narration was what cemented the material into her mind. Or it could be that the narration was what she understood at the time and she wasn't able to make other connections later. I don't know which one it was but it was an interesting point.

Oh, and one more thing. What you think is important to remember may very well not be what they remember.

That's OK.

These are not public school tests, where the student is expected to memorize certain facts. It's about building relationships with the material, and making connections on their own.

Step five: evaluate your exams

When you are finished giving those exams for the week, write down how it went

This is the step we always want to skip. We think that of course we'll remember what happened!

But you won't.

You won't remember the details any more than you remember what that brown lumpy stuff is in the Tupperware container in the back of the fridge.

Write down any pitfalls, any things that you took note of or noticed, any things that you would like to next.

Did you see that you need to be more consistent with your lessons? Did you see that there are some books or resources that were easier for your child to narrate or to make connections from or were somewhere more difficult? 

And celebrate their successes! Any little thing that you were surprised at or that they did particularly well, write that down because it's so easy to remember only the tough parts, the things that didn't work.

But it's more important to look at what they did remember. At the connections they did make.

If they were not able to narrate at all from one of the books, then think back on that.

Is this the book that they showed no interest in while they were reading it or you were reading it to them, if they're younger?

During the term did this seemed like a book that they simply did not understand? If so, and at the end of the exam you found that they really couldn't remember anything from it, then seriously consider either changing out that book or doing something during the next term to help them interact with that material even more.

Narration is the act of interacting with the material, listening to the material, processing it in the mind, pulling it back out of the mind, in order to really assimilated.

It does not have to be done orally-- it can be drawn, it can be acted, it can be written.

There are all sorts of ways that you can do narrations.

However, if they are interacting with the material well during the week during the regular term and you feel like it's that they simply we're having problems with the exam itself, then the answer to that is just to make exams regular and stress-free.

I do not mean monthly, I mean at the end of every term. 

At the end of every three months of your school, make sure that you are doing a week of exams.

quick recap

Giving exams is an important part of a Charlotte Mason education.

  • They should be done every 3 months during the school year
  •  prepare the exams using the PNEU programme exams as examples
  •  substitute information from the books that you were using in your own studies
  •  spread the exams over a full week
  •  don't express disappointment or anger if your children do not remember what you want them to remember
  •  evaluate at the end what went right, what went wrong, what do you want to change for next term if anything, and what do you want to do differently the next exam

I hope this has eased some of your anxiety about giving exams.  

One last thing -- have a treat at the end.

Ice cream is good.

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