Setting up and administering the practical exam was one of the most frustrating things I have done so far in Malawi. I wrote the exam a month ago and at that point consulted with the head of the life sciences department and the principal about procuring the supplies I would need. The list was modest, consisting of a bag of potatoes, salt, 20 razor blades, and 50 small plastic containers. The principal and life sciences head assured me that there would be no problem getting the supplies, after deciding to ask students to bring in used plastic water bottles which we could cut to make containers. I had my doubts about the administration’s ability to collect 50 bottles in a month, but decided to trust to their judgment and organizational abilities. So that’s why I found myself the evening before the test scrubbing the lab’s entire collection of plastic and glassware (amounting to a grand total of 19) which, supplemented by plastic cups from my hut, allowed me to set up 8 stations for the 76 students to take their test the next day.

After finishing the glassware, I returned to my desk to collect my things and head home only to discover a neat stack of the next morning’s exams awaiting collation and stapling. Armed with a finicky stapler machine which required a seemingly random and perfectly placed amount of pressure to produce a staple through three sheets of paper, I experienced the joy of ‘pinning’ biology tests with a stomach that grumbled that it was definitely time to go home.

Pinned exams in hand, I returned to the lab for one last check that everything was in order. With the light flipped on, I realized a key detail that had somehow escaped my notice in all of my earlier preparations. The walls of the lab were covered in beautifully detailed posters explaining such pertinent topics as the digestive system, circulatory system, and excretory system. Those extra hours I spent with my markers and colored pencils had just come back to bite me in a sensitive place, but it was my stomach that protested the loudest. To my ire, upon closer inspection, I noticed that students had penned in their own sideways and less than academically motivated notes across my own officially markered explanations. I ran back to the hut to get some blank poster papers to cover the offending diagrams, all the while devising threats to any who would dare take their pens to the virgin sheets.

Although the task of preparing for the exams was onerous and the actual grading to the exams even more so, I do look forward to the random bits of biological knowledge that I learn from my students whenever they get a chance to put pens to paper. This last exam period was no exception. I learned several interesting facts about reproduction, such as that the testes are both the place where ovaries are produced as well as where fertilization takes place. I also learned that diarrhea is caused through sex-intercourse.

My general understanding of the classification of life was also expanded after reading these answers:

“…bacteria is a virus that cause disease in humans.”

“Algae are flowering plants that decompose.”

"The bacteria can develop legs to enable it to move fast when it realise that the antibiotic coming will definitely kill it."

And my favorite-

Q: What type of plant is plant specimen A?

A: animal cell

But, I am always impressed by my students’ ability to get their point across, creating new words if necessary, when a certain vocabulary term escapes their memory:

“…it cause some species unend or disappear on the world. Population had caused the species of some animals and plants to become unexistence either by killing them or cutting them.”

In case the reader would like to try their wordmaking skills against those of my students I have selected a few questions from both of my exams. Being a mathematician, I of course had to keep track of how many students answered each of these questions correctly, which is why there is a number in parenthesis next to each questions. In case anyone is interested in the math curriculum, I have also posted a few questions from my math test. Next week Jesse and I head up north for a bit of exploring for a two week vacation before it is time to hunker down during third term for some serious review time. Based on those numbers in the parenthesis, my students really need it.

Samples from Form Four Biology Test:

1. The following is a chemical equation for a reaction:

6CO2 + 6H2O -----> C6H12O6 + 6O2

A B C D

a. What biological process involves this reaction? (80%)

b. In what type of living organism does this reaction occur? (75%)

c. Give two uses for product C. (49%)

d. Why is the conversion of product A into product D important for an ecosystem? (28%)

e. Other than the molecules in the equation, name two things necessary for the reaction to occur. (52%)

2. Briefly explain the role of each of the following in the process of reproduction:

a. meiosis (11%)

b. follicle stimulating hormone (15%)

c. testes (78%)

d. placenta (54%)

3. Describe how vaccination causes immunity to a particular disease. (6%)

4. What is the role of each of the following in digestion?

a. saliva (74%)

b. peristalsis (43%)

c. stomach (62%)

d. villi (37%)

These are three essay questions which the students were required to answer:

5. Describe two ways that rapid population growth can affect an ecosystem.

6. Use the theory of natural selection to explain how the use of antibiotics can cause the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

7. Describe how insulin and glucagons act as chemical messengers to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Make sure to specify the endocrine glands and organs involved.

Samples from Form Three Math Test:

1. Simplify __(2 1/2 x 2 1/4) – 5__

10 (4%)

2. Make *y* the subject of the formula. *H = P + *__3 x__

* *2*y* (4%)

3. Given that *log _{x}*1/3

*+ log*12 = 2. Find the value of

_{x}*x*. (17%)

4. Find the equation that has solutions *x = *5 and * x = *-3. (16%)

5. Solve the equation 5(*x+*2)^{2} = 20. (6%)

6. A girl 1.5m tall measures the angle of elevation to the top of a tree as 60° from the horizontal. If the tree is 6.5m tall, how far from the tree is the girl standing? (4%)

7. A circle has a chord of length 8cm that is a distance of 2cm from the centre of the circle. What is the radius of the circle? Leave your answer in simplified surd form. (11%)

8. Find the image of the set {1, 2} under the function *f*: *x------->log _{2 }x*. (3%)

9. The sine of an angle is 4/5 . What is the cosine of the same angle? (13%)