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:
- 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. . . .
- 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!
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?