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Exams that teach rather than just test

December 19, 2010

My colleague A, asked the following question after her students took a group assessment.

On the following scale, rate how much you typically learn while taking a traditional (individual) test:

Now, on the same, rate how much you learned while taking a group test.

A’s results were incredible. Every one of her students reported learning more on the group test than they did on the individual test (and most said they learned very little on the individual test).

I think this is an indicator of how our students view assessment. They see it as something that is done to them. The do not see a test an opportunity to learn, and most importantly, discover what they have not mastered. This is pretty easy to understand, when the assessments many students take consist of little more than multiple choice questions, and an occasional essay or two. Where do we ask students to show their work? Where do we test to see how they can reason through a problem from first principles? When do we ask them to explain their reasoning, rather than simply selecting the best choice?

I can proudly say I’ve never given a scantron test in my life. The scantron machine is the one piece of technology I’ve never bothered to learn how to use, and probably never will. It takes me a tremendously long time to craft each assessment, and I strive to make my assessments something my students will enjoy taking (down to the cartoon on the front and the little bit of positive motivation where they write their name), and hopefully, learn from. This means I don’t ask them to re-solve stuff we’ve already done in class; I’m much more interested in seeing how they can apply what they’ve learned to new and unfamiliar situations. Note, I’m not against multiple choice entirely, and will blog about some of the great multiple choice exams I’ve seen, starting with the infamous PSSC multiple choice testbank, but most multiple choice exams I see test only at a very shallow level.

It also means I tend to write exams that are long, overly complex, difficult to grade, and occasionally a disaster. I can still remember the time I decided to write a final exam my 3rd or 4th year that consisted of a single question to understand the jumping ring apparatus in something like 70 parts—what a nightmare (I’ll have to find that and post it sometime for the laughs).

But, in the interest of openness and hoping for some feedback, I’ll just toss out my latest two creations for the internet to see. Both of these exams were scheduled to take 90 minutes, and they are required by my school to count for 20% of each student’s grade. The honors exam ended up running a bit long, and I should have seen that coming.

Intro exam:

View this document on Scribd

Honors exam:

View this document on Scribd

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    December 22, 2010 1:13 pm

    “This means I don’t ask them to re-solve stuff we’ve already done in class; I’m much more interested in seeing how they can apply what they’ve learned to new and unfamiliar situations.”

    I was just informed by my administrator that I can no longer grade students on their (in)ability to extend their understanding. I can only ask questions on information that I have directly instructed them on in class. Too many parents upset because their children are being made to think…

    • December 22, 2010 1:28 pm

      Wow. I’m not sure what to say. One thing that might help is taking a look at Standards Based Grading, which gives students multiple opportunities to show understanding of a particular concept. That way, if kids can’t apply N2 to a new situation, they have later opportunities through corrections and/or individual reassessments to demonstrate that the ability to make that leap, with no penalty in their grade for missing it the first time. My students have slowly come to see the same way they see practice in sports. Even when you’ve got the crossover dribble down, using it effectively in the game is a whole different matter, and so it takes lots of attempts (and failures) to get it right.

      • Matt permalink
        December 22, 2010 3:32 pm

        Funny thing is, that is what I newly implemented this year. I know their perception is partly due to their lack of understanding what I am attempting to do by using SBG and how it works. The administrator says he believes in what I’m doing, but apparently not, since I can’t really assess their understanding and let them know their problem areas.

        Thanks anyway. I was just venting and you provided the exact thoughts I was trying to express to my administrator. I enjoy reading your blog as well as all the other power hitters of SBG. Keep up the great blogging.

        BTW…I thought your 2 exams were great.


  1. Returning exams: making the end a new beginning… « Quantum Progress

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