Attack of the Exam: Summer Edition

I have spent the last two days watching my students in Analysis of Argument and Communication Criticism turn in their final papers and take their final exams. I can see the anxiety on their faces as they pry open their blue books and wait for the exams to reach them. Exams are stressful, though we ought not worry about causing our students stress-in can be a very productive affective mode. Nonetheless, their anxiety is also paired with my own:

Will this exam adequately and accurately assess what they have learned?
Is the exam hard enough? Too hard?
Is the exam fair?

Before my argument students took their exam I was telling them about a professor I once had who called an exam a four-letter word (see also: test and quiz). A student told me that they once had a prof who called exams celebrations of learning. I like that frame because, although cheesy, it is a good reminder that we do not test because we are mean or punitive, but because we want to provide a means for students to show what they have learned. Even under such positive pretense, questions about effectiveness and fairness remain.

My own testing strategy is minimalistic and is a holdover from my own undergraduate education. A blue book and pen matched with identification questions, short essay questions, and long essay questions. For example, my Comm Criticism exam has a grand total of four questions (2 short essays and 2 long essays). These are time intensive for the student to complete and for me to grade.

Of course others test in different ways, multiple choice exams are commonly used for many reasons by my colleagues (they believe these exams are more comprehensive, they better test students, and/or can be graded a lot faster). Although I am the first to admit I despise multiple choice exams, I cannot fault any of my peers for using such exams-especially as class sizes continue to swell without increases in time or compensation. My bias remains, however, and so I test my students in the same way I was tested. As a result, there are a number of consequences:

1) These exams assume a kind of bias that rewards on the spot depth of thinking in a way that is not always beneficial. Papers produce more complex arguments than timed essay exams.
2) Every question is high stakes. With only 4 questions on an exam, to miss one answer can decimate a grade. I help soften the impact of this by always giving as much partial credit as possible and by letting students choose the questions they respond to from a bank of options (For example, “Choose 2 of the 4 short essay questions below”).
3) I sacrifice quantity for quality. I am always perplexed at the concept of exam reviews because students want me to cover everything important in a semester in one class meeting; that is impossible. However, my minimalist approach does not solve the problem, my exams commit many sins of omission by leaving out crucial tests of knowledge that are important to the structure and knowledge of my classes.

As opposed to saying one way of testing is better than others, I am simply saying what we all know; any test is not an objective metric but a subjective exercise in power/knowledge. Now to make such a claim is not to denounce testing, I take pride in the exams I give, but the way we test speaks loudly about the kinds of classes we teach and the ways we conceive of knowledge production and evaluation.

For now, the blue book blues stand between me and a visit with friends and family in Wisconsin.

For those of you who teach: What types of exams do you use? What do you think of their efficacy? Why do you test that way?

For those of you who are, or were, students: What kind of exams do you prefer? Why? What kinds of evaluation methods did you find rewarding and productive for retaining course material?





Filed under Teaching

3 responses to “Attack of the Exam: Summer Edition

  1. i prefer to get a number of essay questions ahead of time (say, a week in advance). anywhere from 5-10 questions. i like having time to think about the questions and study information surrounding them. then on the day of the exam, i like to receive options to select from. generally double the amount of options to expected answers.

    • Nicole, I have known a number of faculty who use this format and I think it is a good alternative to the testing methods I discussed in the post. Do you think that when given the questions in advance, instructors can/should expect much more depth in this testing situation?

      • Nicole Francisco

        Yes, absolutely. There should be a good balance between preparation and grading. When less preparation is available, then strict grading should be eased. When preparation time is given, then a better product is to be expected.

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