Exam Time Could Be Dangerous to Your Health

This past week, there was an article in InsideHigherEd about a professor who found herself yanked from her biology classroom at Louisiana State University after students complained about her exams (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/04/15/lsu). Apparently, this tenured veteran, with thirty years under her belt, was known for her rigor and high standards and she had recently returned to teaching introductory courses for non-majors, after fifteen years of upper division courses. Her teaching style included giving quizzes every class, and having up to ten answers to some of her multiple choice questions, whereupon 90 percent of her class failed the first quiz. I highly recommend reading the entire article, for all around, the scenario was extreme:

Quizzes every class?

10 answer multiple choice questions?

Ambiguous wording about ‘rewarding students who improve’?

Writing and delivering good exams is an art that only develops with attention and practice. I have seen some terrible exams from colleagues over the years, including tree killers that waste enormous amounts of paper just through poor formatting. After much experimenting, I have found the following parameters to work well for me:

Four to six exams for a semester (so about one every three weeks). An exam should aim to cover no more than three or four chapters in an introductory textbook, maybe more if the chapters are thematically linked into modules with clear meta-questions.

I call mine ‘quizzes’ but just because they tend to be under 100 points. That is a personal preference. All of mine are the same format and length, including the ‘final exam’. I would put in a maximum of 50 questions, worth two points each. These are a mix of multiple-choice, true/false, and matching. I find these are the best question types for testing actual reading and retention of course material.

I base my exams strictly on the textbook, leaving lecture for exegesis and illustration. This way, students can defend their choices, or find my errors in a fair and consistent manner. If I based my exams on lecture, the possibility that I misremembered what I delivered that day could be detrimental to student interests.

I generally do not use short answer or essay questions in my introductory courses, as experience has taught me that I tend to be somewhat overly helpful in my interpretations. We all want our students to do well, and we can often figure out where they are going with their gobbled-gook, but how fair is it to the student we don’t automatically understand or connect with?

I tend to cluster questions in terms of where it occurs in the textbook, as I believe this can often help ‘cue’ the student’s memory. Questions also gradually get more difficult as the exam progresses – this is a subtle reassurance to students who may get panicky in the face of exams. Lobbing a few softballs to warm them up helps to make sure that test performance is based more on what they learned (or didn’t) than on pure fear and adrenaline.

The majority of questions should be answerable by about half of the students; with tiers thereafter of questions only 25 percent and 10 percent could answer. This separates the sheep from the goats, the students who are good test takers from those who actually did the work. It is fair for students who work hard be rewarded, and those who did not to be left behind at the hurdle.

Speaking of fairness, questions should not be “tricksy” and misleading. I think we sometimes overinvest in the process, and this leads us to the creation of the kind of over-elaboration I brought up at the beginning of this post.

Finally, I think it is important to imbue students with the sense that exams are important academic rituals. Give them proper instructions leading into the exam, and how to close it out. Make sure that classroom discipline is observed, with quiet for people who are still working. Enforce time-limits uniformly, or students will feel betrayed that some folks appear to get preferential treatment. Make sure your accommodations have been signed off on by whoever handles ADA issues on your campus. Have exam procedures clearly laid out in your syllabus, and be able to explain your decision-making process to students who ask rational and polite questions. Last but not least, get exams graded, entered and back to students quickly. Frankly, no more than a week should elapse, otherwise you have moved on to other material and the exams will no longer seem relevant.

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