Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A question on exams

A question on exams



My friends, please note the time of this post. I have just finished posting my final exams on Blackboard. Finals aren't till next week. They are three-part exams. A take home document analysis, in-class IDs and in-class essay. I was not given document questions on exams when I was an undergraduate. We had basic questions (compare/contrast, causes/effects of X, trace the development of ...)and were expected to refer to documents we had read. I never really had to do document analysis in any depth, even in papers, till I got to grad school. Even then, not so much, except in the context of research papers. So why ask the students to do it? Because it's interesting and they should know how to read and analyze primary sources? Because it's good for them to know how professionals know what they know? I think those are good reasons. And because we work on these things in class, it makes sense to assess what they have learned.

But the other part ... I guess there were profs who gave us lists of IDs to study. Maybe. And sometimes general topic lists. But no one ever gave me the questions in advance. So I give them four questions. Then on the day of the exam, I choose two. The students write on one. But I have to consider this -- the essays aren't all that much better than when I've given the questions blind and on the day. In fact, only a couple are hugely better, and the rest not so much. This was true when I gave both essays as take-homes. The essays were a bit better organized, but not noticeably better written or proofread. So why am I staying up so late, a week before exams, to give them the exam questions in advance?

Does anyone else do this?

And, on another related note -- every time I look at exam questions I might think of pinching from old exams, I think ... hey, maybe I should remember these, and my course would be more focused. Does anyone else do this? If you do, how do you walk the line between crafting a course with several clear content goals and teaching to an exam? BTW, I'm not totally clueless, just very tired. There just aren't that many questions we ask in surveys, anyway -- just multiple creative way of asking them. So it should be easy not to "teach to the test" while still having a clear idea of course content outcomes ...

13 comments:

Jonathan Dresner said...

I test very much like you do. Take-home essays (which are on average better than in class, though not as good as I'd expect, but they have less excuses and I have fewer handwriting problems) or in-class essays chosen from lists distributed in advance, ID short answers, document analysis. I vary the mix from course to course, semester to semester, but I use all of them.

I don't "teach to the test": when I write my questions up I often find that old questions are irrelevant because of shifted emphasis or materials, so I have to test what I taught instead.

Why do it in advance? Because the students, though they routinely fail to take advantage of your efforts, nonetheless appreciate them. It feels more fair to them: if they fail, it's not trickiness on your part, or "oops, I studied the wrong thing" which terrifies them (test-anxiety seems to be at an all-time high), but because they honestly didn't understand the material (either through lack of study or lack of basic understanding) and follow your instructions.

On a personal note, can I just say that the spate of very interesting pedagogical discussions couldn't come at a worse time of the semester!

Celandine Brandybuck said...

I generally give a study guide at least to the survey class. (My exams are either entirely in-class or else it's a big final paper.) For each essay question on the test, like you, I give four possibles, then on the day I pick two and they choose one of those to write on. Likewise I'll give a list of about 50 possible IDs, then for the exam I pick 8 and they write on 5 they choose. This term I'm doing a map - they had 90 places on 3 exercises throughout the semester, and on the exam will have to identify 10 of those.

They do not normally do any better than I think they would without the study guide. The reason I do it is because it seems to calm most of them down, to have a defined universe to focus on as they are studying, even if it is a large universe! Plus, it means I don't get them emailing me going "what's going to be on the exam". :-)

Ancarett said...

It's a good question. We have to hand in our final exams about a month before they're actually administered (to permit time for copying, etc.) which means that I know what the questions are throughout the last month of class.

That is, if I remember them. I actually am quite adept at forgetting my exams as soon as I write them.

I give out review sheets for the final exam in Western Civ on the first day of class (I actually do this in every class I teach). This familiarizes students with the format (some short IDs, a map question and an essay section) so that they can't complain they didn't expect this type of test!

We reiterate that review in the last class of the term where I ask them to draw out themes we've talked about throughout the course. Those themes, I remind them, are always useful when it comes to the essay section.

Amber Spyglass said...

If I don't hand out the questions in advance, the students whine and whine and whine and whine and whine -- not just in class, but on the end-of-term evaluations as well. As Prof. Dresner says above, they seem to think that it's "not fair" if they don't know exactly what's going to be on the exam. Like Prof. Dresner, I get a lot of "I spent all day studying the wrong thing!" -- sometimes even if I do give out the questions in advance!

I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for this attitude, myself. One of the things we're trying to teach these students is how to study. They need to understand what is important and relevant in the lectures and the reading assignments so that they can focus on it. I can't count the number of students who've sat in my office pointing to every line in the textbook in sequence, saying "Do I have to know this? Do I have to know this? How about this?" Such students are missing the point in a profound way. The problem is, I'm so busy trying to teach the content of the course that I don't really know how to set aside the huge amounts of class time they seem to need to learn what it means to absorb reading and lecture material.

All of that having been said, I do sometimes write study guides or give out certain questions in advance. And I do work very hard to make my test questions fair; I don't believe in trick questions or picky memorization. Like you, I don't find the students do much better or worse either way, but it does sometimes stave off the complaints. Sometimes.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Funny -- I'd forgotton about the complaint factor. I just started doing it because I spend so much time on document analysis in class that it seemed wrong not to ask them to demonstrate that they'd learned how to do it. After the marking is done (and maybe after reviewing owlfish's chapter and getting up the next carnivalesque), I want to write a post about how this quarter has really made me re-think my teaching to include more "how to do college" stuff.

Anonymous said...

I do very much what you do, and have since the first time I taught a class that covered 500 years.

On top of the fairness and student anxiety issues, I see this as an additional teaching opportunity.
When they study they recapitulate the same themes I presented in the lectures, the online notes, the discussion of the same documents in class. It's a way of making them work harder.

If only a few take advantage of what you give them, just remember that no matter what you do it disproportionately benefits the best students.

Well, they are the best for a reason. More than one reason. More power to them, if they earn it.

Ancarett said...

I forgot to touch on document analysis. I do use that type of question a fair bit, but not to date in my first year classes. I shook up the system enough when I instituted the map question which asked them to identify some marked cities on a map and discuss those cities' historical significance that I'm almost afraid to consider what adding a document analysis to the first year exam would do. . . .

But it would probably be more fun to grade than yet another turgid essay!

What Now? said...

I like doing exams this way -- giving them 4 questions in advance, then putting 2 of the questions on the exam and asking them to write on 1 of them -- because that way they in theory do significant preparation for three of the questions, which I like to think means they actually get more out of preparing for the exam. That is, there is pedagogical value in the studying as well as in the exam.

Plus there's that whole complaint factor.

Plus it's one less thing for me to do during finals week if I've already written out the questions.

Rebecca said...

My dad, who taught US history at a large state school in the late 1970s, used to put a document on his finals that students had never seen before. They were to write an essay in which they identified the author, approximate time it was written, and its significance. The idea wasn't to penalize the students for being right or wrong, but to see how students used what they had learned in the class to make an argument. Thus, students could write an essay with the "wrong" answer and still get full points for thought process and use of evidence. He says it was a successful exam strategy and made for interesting reading when grading time came around.

I wonder if such an approach would work today. There's too much test anxiety, as Jonathan points out, and too much expectation from students that all they have to do on the exam is regurgitate and they'll be fine.

Professor Bastard said...

I don't give out the questions in advance. Instead, I give them a sample question to try their hands at. I get one to four students a semester who bring me a practice answer to give them advice on.

In addition, at the beginning of the semester, I give them a list of topics and concepts we'll be covering all semester. We cover them all semester. Three weeks before the exam, I return to that list and I advise them to start preparing an outline that notes the texts and most salient passages that discuss the topics and concepts.

I also hold a mandatory final exam review session, in which I discuss how to structure an exam answer, how to read the question (giving them a second sample question to discuss with me), and answer any questions they have about the texts. I try not to let me eyes explode from my head at the kinds of questions I get.

Then I go home.

Anglophilia said...

I love Rebecca's comment about testing them with a new document. I'll have to try that one!

I was never given a study packet in college yet I use them all the time now--mostly because I feel it gets me off the hook if they fail. But I'm old school and would truly prefer to have the study the course content and be prepared for anything I throw their way. Maybe I'm just getting too lazy...

Kelly said...

I tend to ask broader questions in upper division courses to give them some "room" to demonstrate what they know and emphasize historical thinking skills. However, some are still more concrete in what they expect and/or are still learning to think beyond the facts and dates.

I do like the idea of the new document mentioned - will have to do some thinking about how to administer that so as to not create a backlash about "we've never seen that before"

The biggest problem I have seen this semester with my online courses is getting students to follow directions more than just "getting close to doing it right." But I also know I have colleagues who are willing to accept the excuses for not following directions the first time so it's also somewhat conditioned.

This is always an interesting time of the semester!

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