I like test days

I really like test days.  I like to see students with that nervous anticipation of holding on to their learning long enough to get it down on paper.  However, the joke is on them.  I know that in that process of studying and reviewing the content that the information will linger.  Now, I’m not foolish enough to think that students will recall all the information from our class—but I do see that students walk away feeling as though they have learned about themselves and the content area.

Once in attending a teaching conference, I heard a question from the audience of “how do you keep your class from becoming a public health course?”  I can’t recall the response, or if I responded, but I think that a class in Adolescent Development is a personal learning experience for students.  For me, teaching adolescent development is a combination of teaching the content known in the research and having students reflect on their own experience and make sense of it.  Many of my students are relatively recent adolescents (some researchers might say they still are) and come with a font of information about what is adolescence that has not yet made it into the textbooks and the research.  The students can affirm or deny the content and demonstrate critical thinking in the process of doing so.

I think a lot about testing these days.  I went to a teaching session at a conference where the speaker said he did not give tests in class anymore.  He claimed that he did not see the value in testing anymore.  His statement really struck a chord in me.   I had to question whether or not tests are relevant and useful learning experiences for students.  On the other side, demonstrable research indicates that more frequent testing improves retention  and learning (See Roediger& Karpicke, 2006).  Both of these run counter to my own current practice.  When I was getting my credential to teach elementary school, one thing that stuck with me is to test how you teach.  The implication of this is that testing should reflect the structure of teaching.  In testing, I believe students need to recognize the learning experiences in class on their test.  If class structure is about recalling information then the tests should reflect that learning process.   If class structure involves a great deal of self-reflection and writing, then tests should reflect that.

In developing tests, I also believe in giving students opportunities to demonstrate what they know versus what they don’t know.  Consequently, for years, I have been offering students packages of questions that they can select to answer.  For example:

Package A
24 Multiple choice (1.5 points each)
2 Short answer (7 points each)

 Package B
20 Multiple choice (1.5 points each)
4 Short answer (5 points each)

 Package C
15 Multiple choice (2 points each)
2 Essays (10 points each)

 Package D
16 Multiple choice (2 points each)
2 Short answer (4 points each)
1 Essay (10 points)

In this system, students see all of the questions and can decide which responses they feel confident with and want to indicate for grading.  In addition, this system allows students who feel more confident writing or taking multiple choice to find a happy medium to demonstrate their learning.  I am also careful to make sure that none of the multiple choice inform the short answer and vice versa.  Notice also that all packages require at least some writing.  Students generally like this format and feel empowered to make choices on what they feel most secure in representing as their learning.

The aftermath for me as the instructor is that this is a bit more labor intensive in grading.  Unlike an electronically graded multiple choice test, I have to individually grade each test because the multiple choice responses are not completed sequentially since students have choices.  However, the benefit is that students feel more empowered.  When I initially began to test in this format, my department chair questioned whether or not one package of questions was allowing students to perform better.  I then set out to systematically track several semesters’ worth of package choices across several courses.  I found no significant difference by test or when students switched to a different package on subsequent tests.

Afterwards, when tests are returned, I give students a chance to convince me that their response is correct.  In fact, I encourage them to argue for points.  My questions are not infallible.  I encourage students to describe how they understood the questions and how their choices resulted from their line of thinking.  For me, this process often brings out high quality, critical thinking (and scurrying for support from the text).  I also do this publicly with the whole class.  I do so to allow students to collaborate and to build on each other’s arguments—again, working together, brings about subsequent critical thinking.  Regularly, I concede and offer the contributors half a point, or in an egregious error, the whole point value back.   Sometimes, it is pressure-filled for me in front of the room but generally, students like the process and are assuaged by a half a point.  Realistically, a half a point will not keep them from a particular grade in the end, but I believe my concession makes them feel vindicated.  At the same time, they learn about the fallibility of testing and on choices in teaching practice.  I know that some instructors allow students to write a written response if they feel that there is error or alternative response. However, I feel strongly that the public discourse allows students to advocate successfully for themselves and on behalf of their classmates.Opportunities to learn and demonstrate advocacy skills seem to be thin these days.  Increasingly, I am thinking that we instructors need to help student learn how to use their learning to advocate for social change.

Meanwhile, a stack of papers await.

By Robert Weisskirch

Image by mybaitshop/AdobeStock

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