Teaching to the Test

I’m pondering whether or not to run midterms in my freshman and sophomore level survey courses this fall (Western Civ and Early Modern Britain for topic areas). Tests seem easy to administer, giving a snapshot of student understanding and communication. But they can become a lot of work, even for the instructor. For instance, once classes reach a certain size, I’m certain to have students who’re injured, ill or bereaved on test dates, necessitating make-up tests. I’ve had eight or ten students needing to write make-ups during a particularly bad flu outbreak! That means writing new versions of the test and organizing the new test time. As my survey enrolments creep up toward the cap of 80, I’m pondering the pay-off.

In defense of midterms:

  1. They teach students how to take tests. Especially at the first year level, that’s a not inconsiderable skill. Learning how to write concise responses to short-answer questions, for instance, is a skill they’ll use over and over again, especially because. . . .
  2. We have mandatory “final instruments” which, for all intents and purposes in a larger class means a final exam. So if the students don’t learn how to write short identifications and practice extemporaneous essay answers before the final exam, how are they going to do well at the end of the term? I’m able to dispense with a final exam in my senior seminars where I require a portfolio of source analyses, peer review comments and other work they’ve crafted over a term, but I’m not sure how well I could do that in a lower level course with large numbers of students!
  3. Tests seem easier to grade than most equivalent assignments. I don’t feel it’s helpful to do more than highlight areas where the prose is so incomprehensible as to defy marking or scrawl “great!” beside a well-crafted argument. A four-page paper, say, even with a rubric that helps me to explain their outcome, still requires a lot of professorial response. Particularly with students in the early stages of their university career, you’ll often encounter essays that reveal problems in grammar, punctuation, expression, spelling, logic and organization. If you don’t help the student by at least identifying these problems at this stage, they’re not going to progress well at all!
  4. Midterms give students a good sense of how they’re progressing in otherwise essay-intensive classes. If you’re concentrating almost all of their marks in a big essay and final exam, how do you let students know how they’re progressing, otherwise. Sure, our university (and others, I assume), mandates that students receive feedback on one substantial assignment before the deadline to drop without a mark on the transcript. But if you just have a short essay early to cover that, maybe a proposal or annotated bibliography, a long essay and a final, that’s a lot piling up at the end of term for both students and instructors!

Against midterms:

  1. More trouble than they’re worth? Well, certainly more trouble than I like to think – from taking time in the classroom away from actually learning to the trouble associated with making up missed tests, one way or another.
  2. High anxiety: I know that tests induce a lot of anxiety in students and it’s difficult to design a test that will reveal their knowledge (requiring some sort of essay response) without evoking high anxiety. I circulate sample tests and finals from early on in the term. I provide review sheets (again, these take some effort to produce). I field many questions and queries about tests despite all of that, so I know testing weighs on them.
  3. What do tests really show? We don’t do multiple-choice tests in my department based on long-standing principle but the bigger the class, the more likely I am to retreat to simpler instruments of assessment: fill-in-the-blank questions for terms we’ve emphasized throughout the course, map identifications, short answers. They don’t demonstrate much about student learning beyond the regurgitation of certain facts and key points.

I will likely have one teaching assistant to help me out this year: an M.A. student who’s contracted for ten hours of work a week for the department (which means that I have to allot for the TA’s prep time and the chance that her or his labour might need to be shared a couple weeks out of the term). Grading schemes have to be made in the cold, hard calculation of labour availability.

So I put this out there in hopes that the wisdom of the community (the blogo-brain?) can help me figure out good strategies for these two courses. To midterm or not to midterm and, if I don’t, what’ll come next?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Teaching to the Test

  1. Thinking aloud, please disregard anything that strikes you as crazy.
    It seems that some of the pros are things that could be done with an activity that does not contribute to the final exam. In other words, there are learning outcomes like writing concise answers, etc. that are separable from the mark. And a formative assessment that doesn’t contribute to the mark might also give students a sense of where they are without the anxiety induced by the fear that they aren’t far enough ahead and how they’ve irreparably hurt their final mark.

    My suggestion is a mid-term that is peer-marked. If you miss it you miss it (though could be involved in marking). You get students to put their student numbers only so that peer-markers don’t know who’s paper they are marking. You create a rubric and guide students through how to mark one of these things. They get the added advantage of seeing how their peers approach these things.

    Yes, this probably takes up 2 classes, but you have indicated that there are important skills to be learned here, and skills are important content in a course (that we can often overlook in our focus on who did what when).

    I think there is a literature on peer assessment out there. It might be a solution that covers a bunch of your pros and cons. As I understand it, the main objection is in relation to the mark being part of their final assessment on the course, and I don’t think that is necessary. It’s formative. (And those that don’t participate, thus miss that formation and take the consequences. They are adults.)

    • jliedl

      I do a fair bit of peer assessment, though mostly in the upper-level courses where I have smaller classes. I hadn’t thought about this relatively quick and informal take on the practice – we might use that in a run up to test/exam. I do find that rubrics are great tools for students: they get them before assignments are due and their marks are returned based upon the rubric’s breakdown. Having them use the rubrics in their own assessment might make the lessons sink in a little better!

      I am keen to build the skills where they take information and use it to formulate an argument. At the first year level, that’s challenge enough for many of them! We do a lot of source analysis in the class so maybe starting them out with a passage to analyze with rubric in hand, then passing the anonymized results back out to assess against the rubric. . . .

      Thanks for the feedback!

  2. JoVan has some interesting ideas – but it seems it all goes back to what you want to know. Is that how many factoids they’ve mastered? How they take tests? How they write under pressure? Do you to see if they are learning to use skills of historians? The interpretations of historical events as created by other historians? If it’s just factoids, then multiple choice/IDs work fine. But if you’re checking higher levels of learning (application, synthesis, evaluation), you do need more than that. But realistically speaking, to check those do you need to give them more than a single class period/exam to demonstrate those abilities? And is an exam the best way to check their progress on developing those skills?

    • jliedl

      I’m only marginally interested in the factoid element. Of course, it does bother me when they think that Martin Luther brought the Black Death to France and caused the French Revolution (only a slight exaggeration!).

      We do want to build their skills to craft arguments and to muster some historical examples that support their argument. I spend a lot of time with close readings of primary sources (so that, by my senior seminars, I give them very little secondary material and make the class readings almost all primary sources.

      I realize that, at least at the second-year level, I need to have students assessing some secondary literature, too. I don’t want to get stuck with “book reviews” as an assignment so I need to be creative about those, too!

  3. One solution to the make-ups is to not give them. I tell students there are no makeups; if they miss an exam, they miss the exam. (On occasion, when a student has a good reason, I’ve shifted the weight of other assignments, and there are probably ways to do that systematically.)

    I hate making up exams, but I think both students and I find them useful. In surveys there is a certain amount of factoid stuff (and I always give maps in Western Civ type courses) because the distant past and the locations are unfamiliar; but I’m also asking them to think about a problem. It really helps ME focus on my course themes, too.

    • jliedl

      I don’t think I could get away with not giving make-ups for midterms but I could simply designate a universal make-up time for each class in which I run midterms.

      You’re right that exams are useful – I know that my first year students will write many more exams over the course of their study, particularly the large number enrolled as history majors! And I feel that exams give them a chance to see if they can put some of the pieces together in a useful way. Can they tell my why Martin Luther or Catherine the Great matters to our understanding of the western world or do they just have a few dates and places? Do they understand why historians emphasize broad changes in many aspects of life were happening over the long eighteenth century or is their identification of the Triple Revolution nothing more than three words and a vague statement? You’re right that, in these cases, questions in quizzes and tests allow a prof to check and see if they’re thinking historically.

      So this is why I waver back and forth: I see the drawbacks and the benefits to tests. If I’m going to keep them (and I probably will, at least in the first year class), I need to make sure I’m using them to best advantage for all concerned!