Having a Staff “Pre-Mortem” Before Major Exams

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos


No, I didn’t invent the term “pre-mortem” and I don’t associate exams with life and death situations.

But it is a strategy for avoiding mistakes (or minimizing the impact of mistakes ) when one is faced with very stressful situations and national exam days are very stressful days, ripe with opportunities for all sorts of mayhem. I learned about it from Daniel Levitin’s TED TALK, embedded below. As he points out, when you are under stress your thinking gets cloudy without you realizing it is cloudy.

Obviously it is common sense to plan ahead and be prepared for exam days. I’ve had a checklist for years of things I need to do before an exam. Things such as bringing extra pens for those students who arrive at an exam without one, making sure students remember what time their exam begins, bringing food for the incredibly long day we must spend at school…

A checklist turns out not be enough.

A checklist relies on previous experience, picturing situations already encountered. It is limited to the extent of my personal experience (albeit a long one but the limit remains). It also relies on the assumption that there is a limited number of problems that could arise on exam days. I do not find that assumption to be true.

A staff “pre-mortem” to brainstorm all the things that could possibly cause trouble on exam day would tap the imagination and experience of many people. We would have varied input as to what we can do to prepare for some of the issues.

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Some simple examples I’ve come up with when conducting my own “post mortem” of the exam day we just had:

  • In addition to being a teacher I’m a national counselor. I’m on the phone a lot with schools all over the country during exam day. I almost missed the announcement that came in about an hour after the first exam had begun that there was an error in the line numbers on one of the questions. This actually has happened before but it wasn’t on my checklist and it hadn’t occurred to me to set up a “buddy system” to make sure someone checks to see that I’ve heard  the announcement.
  • An administrator came to me after the exam had begun and requested, urgently, that I give her some dictionaries from the English room for students (not mine) that arrived without them. I did. I think, I hope, I had written a long time ago “English Room” inside the front covers. I didn’t check (cloudy thinking!). Will I ever see those dictionaries again?
  • I have no idea what I could have done about the shortage of proctors and the huge delays caused, but perhaps imagining the situation with others beforehand would have brought up some interesting thoughts…

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