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Effective Written Tests

by on July 26, 2012

Some clubs require a written test when examining for shodan (1st degree) and above. The tests may be general or very specific, although the specific parts don’t usually come until yondan (4th degree) and above. I don’t know the details of your club or organization, but if its a shotokan club there are bound to be a certain number of common elements that your instructor will be looking for.

The question is, what makes for an effective written test for testing karate knowledge?

I had the same sort of question when I was taking some computer science programming courses in university. How do you make an effective written test for programming? Its easy to ask what the “static” keyword means in C++, or the difference between an abstract class and an interface in Java. But are these questions effective? Some of the questions I would get on programming written tests were to the effect of: “Write a program that will parse a string of input and output only the year.” On paper? Certainly not effective. In this case, being in front of a computer is essential.

It seems that theoretical questions or factoid questions are appropriate for a written test while practical questions require a practical setting. How might this translate to karate examination?

To begin, what would you expect to gain from administering a written test to your students? There’s no point making up a test if you don’t know the goal. We’re taking about effectiveness and not creating questions for the sake of it. So what’s your goal?

Few students are going to be able to describe on paper any real understanding of most techniques an even fewer are going to be able to describe anything complex. That doesn’t mean they don’t understand it, it means they can’t describe it in text or perhaps even vocally.  If you want to know if your students know the principles of a round-house kick, get them to do it a few times and then walk you though it. Having them describe what they are doing and prompt them with questions as to why they do certain things  a certain way. “Why do we raise the knee up to the side before rotating and not bring our knee forward before rotating?” Its near impossible to put this on a written test. Given some time the student may come up with a description, but it’ll take too much time and that is ineffective for a 1 hour test, for example. A research paper or essay might work, but that’s another topic for another day.

Questions that will work include: factoids and trivia. Traditional clubs may have the easiest time with this. Questions about karate’s origins and the purpose of the art are short answers if the question is worded to be specific. Factoids about techniques and kata are also easy questions. Here’s a simple question which is effective if you want to test kata trivia knowledge:

1. How many movements are in each of the following kata:

Tekki Shodan: Heian nidan:
Kanku Dai: Heian Yondan:
Sochin: Unsu:

I call this a warm-up question. It’s not a valuable indicator of your student’s kata knowledge per se, but it get’s their brains working in the right direction in preparation for the following questions. An effective follow up to this question, if you want to test for a students ability to identify patterns in kata and extract common threads, is going to be far less trivial but still be short and specific enough to be covered in about 10 minutes of a test:

2. For each Heian kata, give a single 2-movement sequence that the kata shares with Kanku Dai. (mirror image versions are accepted as well)

Your students will likely work through each of these kata in their minds and try to remember common patterns. This is good. It encourages them to do the same thing in their spare time and in preparation for future tests. Your students will eventually get to a point where they will know the answers without working through the kata in their mind’s eye. They’ll thank you for this.

If kihon, kata, and kumite each make up about 33% of karate, then there’s about 30% of karate you can’t put on a written test: kumite. I can’t think of any questions on kumite that give you real, valuable, insight into your students understanding of sparring. You can ask about foot placement, which muscles are used in some given techniques, and questions about theory and sparring principles like go no sen and sen no sen, but what does this tell you? That they’ve read Best Karate Volume 3 and 4? No, this evaluation isn’t effective for you or your student. People who don’t really “get” kumite can answer these questions flawlessly and vice versa. Is that what you want? You want to know how they move. Have they learned principles you’ve taught them. Effective examination for kumite requires a practical. Unless you can tell me what useful information you can draw from any kumite-related written question, and why it’s useful.

Why all this talk about effectiveness anyways? Why not just test for the sake of testing? Why not include questions for the sake of requiring that the test take more than 60 minutes to complete?

It boils down to why you’re doing it. Teachers don’t make work for themselves for fun (unless they are somewhat twisted). Typically, caring teachers test students because they have a genuine interest in seeing that the student has grown. There are tests that show what percentage of a topic the student understands, and there are tests that gauge the students growth. Which do you give?

The primary goal of any examination must be to give the student an indication of how much they really know and to actually teach them. Exams teach through requiring repetition. The purpose of your test should NOT be to give you an indication of how much your students know. Most of you know this for regular karate examinations. The same holds true for karate written tests. This knowledge isn’t helping your students at all and only vaguely helps you. Unless you’re making barrels of money or becoming a local celebrity by operating a karate club, which isn’t the case for most instructors, you don’t spend hours after work or leave your kids at home on weekends to go work out in japanese pajamas with others just so that you get accreditation for how good a teacher you are.

That doesn’t mean you, the instructor, can’t take from the test ideas about what your students know. This helps to direct future classes and form future tests. It provides positive feedback as to how you are doing as an instructor and as a test creator. Take this new data and role with it, create more tests; more effective tests.

  1. Puneet Kochar permalink

    I enjoyed reading your article on effective written tests in fact I was 5 when I began training Shotokan Karate and I used to call “sum” and came to know much later that it actually was “san” sanban the root. So from the last ten years of my teaching karate I take wriiten tests lower to higher in their difficulty level for all grades..
    And I just found your article awesome and sensible enough…hope Senseis took pain to do so…

    Puneet Kochar

  2. Excellent read, our club does a written exam for Shodan, we also do random single instructions to assess the students on terminology, this will also include them actually demonstrating the requested technique, the exam is not to technical it just a way of assessing a student grasp on what has been tought, the most important thing is that the student has learnt and is making the required steps in what is the start of a life time of learning.

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