December 2nd, 2010

Test Messages


“The type of assessment used in a course provides a clear indication of what the course goals truly are. No matter what the teacher says, tests are proof of whether the goals are memorization of chemical facts, plug-and-chug mathematical problem solving, or the ability to understand and apply the concepts of chemistry.” (p. 678)

I can’t remember reading anything that makes this point quite as clearly and succinctly. Yes, the writer is a chemist, but I can’t think of a discipline where her point doesn’t apply. I happened on this statement just after reading Paul Ramsden’s chapter in Improving Learning: New Perspectives. (Yes, I’m still cleaning.) “… students’ perceptions of assessment and teaching profoundly affect their approaches to learning and the quality of what they learn. The evidence is often negative; pleasing teachers, gaining high grades and understanding do not necessarily overlap.”

Both observations should motivate us to look long and hard at the questions on our exams. We are too easily persuaded that our questions aren’t asking for details that can be memorized. That’s a conclusion to be drawn cautiously. Much research documents that most multiple-choice questions test knowledge at the recall level on the Bloom taxonomy—this is especially true of the questions that come to us from textbooks. You can test your objectivity by asking a trusted colleague to take a look at one of your exams and offering to do the same in return.

Isn’t there some incrimination inherent in how motivated students are to memorize the facts—not true of all students, I realize, but characteristic of many of them. I expect you’d agree. “What do I need to know for the test?” they ask us and anybody who has taken a class with us previously. They memorize the facts (too often without understanding them) because they’ve seen lots of fact-based tests previously.

We don’t aspire to write fact-based questions or at least not a lot of them. We do because test construction is yet another teaching task we tackle when we are pressed for time. Fact-based questions are much easier to write than questions that test understanding of concepts and the ability to apply content. That’s why I believe we need to preserve those questions that do test higher-order thinking. Yes, tests can be distributed to students for an in-class debrief, but then they should be returned to the teacher. I didn’t record grades until after the debrief, and that ensures that all the tests are returned. Students may come to the office any time to review their tests but not to take them home. That way I can recycle good questions—maybe not the next semester, but sometime subsequently, and after a few semesters you can have assembled a good test bank of your own.

References: Bunce, D. M. (2009). Teaching is more than lecturing and learning is more than memorizing. Journal of Chemical Education, 86 (6), 674-680.

Ramsden, P. Studying learning: Improving Teaching. In P. Ramsden, ed., Improving Learning: New Perspectives. London: Kogan Page, 1988.