Final exams are upon us. Most Saudi households are affected by the finals in one way or other in a country where approximately half the population is in school. This is the time to go out shopping or whatever. You’ll notice the crowds are a little smaller and the traffic is a little lighter. It will get even better starting from June 14th and two weeks on. If you’re planning a trip to Dubai or Bahrain, try to manage it so that it falls within those two weeks so you can at least avoid the Saudi crowds.
If you are a Saudi there is a certain atmosphere about this time of year, even if you’re all grown up and out of school. A certain smell of fear and pending doom. Exams are extremely stressful in Saudi Arabia. On that one final paper, a minimum of 50% of your mark for the whole semester is hanging. And for high school seniors, the results decide what college they’ll be able to get into. The current education system is quite theoretical, relying mostly on written explanations and pictures in books, even if you are studying physics, chemistry or biology. The best way to get by is through rote memorization. So by the time these students reach college, they’re so used to this system that it is a feat to wean them off it. A question that always comes up with my students is which pages exactly are in the exam. And no matter how many times I tell them that we are testing their ability to communicate in English not how many grammar points they memorized, they still don’t get it.
What’s funny is that in many colleges across Saudi Arabia, they still rely on memorization. I remember in college, students who couldn’t write one sentence in English pass Drama because they memorized the “handouts”. A whole culture of handouts has ruined our higher educational system. As long as the students memorize the 20 to 30 page handout, they’re good to go. The handouts even tell the student what to write when they’re asked for their opinion. And believe it or not, these handouts are written by the course instructor himself. Then the instructor would have answer sheets that are all identical. Can you imagine how easy it is to grade memorized answers?! Where I work, this was going on, but the administration banned instructors from writing and distributing handouts with the aim of raising the educational standards. I hope all institutes across the Saudi follow suit.