students taking a test August 24

Is It Time to Rethink Our Exams?


I’ve been ruminating lately about tests and wondering if our thinking about them hasn’t gotten into something of a rut. We give exams for two reasons. First, we use exams to assess the degree to which students have mastered the content and skills of the course. But like students, we can get too focused on this grade-generating function of exams. We forget the second reason (or take it for granted): exams are learning events. Most students study for them, perhaps not as much or in the ways we might like, but before an exam most students are engaged with the content. Should we be doing more to increase the learning potential inherent in exam experiences?

taking test deep in thought April 27

Test Anxiety: Causes and Remedies


There hasn’t been a lot written recently about test anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer an issue for a significant number of students. Those of us who don’t suffer from test anxiety—and I’m betting that’s most faculty—can find it hard to be sympathetic. Life is full of tests, and students need to get over it. Besides, if students have studied and prepared, there’s no reason for them to feel excessively anxious about a test.

student studying October 28, 2015

What’s a Good Faith Effort?


In some types of assignments, it’s the process that’s more important than the product. Journals and online discussion exchanges, even homework problems, are good examples. Students are thinking and learning as they work to sort through ideas, apply content, or figure out how to solve problems. So what the student needs to get credit for is not the product, but the process. And the way most faculty make that determination is by deciding whether the student has made a good faith effort.

book closeup March 30, 2015

Using Student-Generated Reading Questions to Uncover Knowledge Gaps


Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Student-Generated Reading Questions: Diagnosing Student Thinking with Diverse Formative Assessments, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 42 (1), 29-38. The Teaching Professor Blog recently named it to its list of top pedagogical articles.

As instructors, we make a myriad of assumptions about the knowledge students bring to our courses. These assumptions influence how we plan for courses, what information we decide to cover, and how we engage our students. Often there is a mismatch between our expectations about what students know and how students actually think about a topic that is not uncovered until too late, after we examine student performance on quizzes and exams. Narrowing this gap requires the use of well-crafted formative assessments that facilitate diagnosing student learning throughout the teaching process.

March 19, 2014

Four Lessons about Learning Discovered on a Chairlift


Chemistry professor Steven M. Wright has written a one-page essay about his niece, Julia, learning how to downhill ski. She was ready for her first ride on the chairlift and Wright was helping her. He’s a professor so he covered the topic in a well-organized, easy-to-understand way. It was a short, five minute lecture that ended with a repeat of the main point, “keep your ski tips up when you get on the lift.”

March 5, 2014

Tips for Writing Good Multiple-Choice Questions


I remember with horror and embarrassment the first multiple-choice exam I wrote. I didn’t think the students were taking my course all that seriously, so I decided to use the first exam to show just how substantive the content really was. I wrote long, complicated stems and followed them with multiple answer options and various combinations of them. And it worked. Students did poorly on the exam. I was pleased until I returned the test on what turned out to be one of the longest class periods of my teaching career. I desperately needed the advice that follows here.

February 26, 2014

Examining Your Multiple-Choice Questions


As Ron Berk (known for his pithy humor) observes, the multiple-choice question “holds world records in the categories of most popular, most unpopular, most used, most misused, most loved and most hated.” According to one source I read, multiple-choice questions were first used around the time of World War I to measure the abilities of new Army recruits. As class sizes have grown and the demands on teacher time expanded, they have become the favorite testing tool in higher education.