Test What You Want to be Testing

Does Your Exam Make the Grade?

It’s hard to believe, but finals week is a month away. Your students may be feeling anxious already, since final exams tend to have a disproportionately-significant impact on students’ grades.

You may not be thrilled about exams, either: most faculty have had minimal preparation in the craft of designing tests. And as Clegg and Cashin admit, “the process is not only difficult; it is also frustrating and often ineffective.” Too often, our exams don’t align with our priorities for learning. They don’t give students a chance to show how much they’ve learned—so we can’t tell how well we’ve taught.

When you give an exam, you’re gathering data on your students’ progress, so you want it to be both valid and reliable. The first step is to articulate exactly what you want to assess. As Ory and Ryan put it, you have to make sure you’re “testing what you want to be testing”—that is, what you think your students should know and/or be able to do by this point in the class. If your test is not aligned with your goals, “you will not be able to evaluate your students’ progress with any accuracy,” warn Clegg and Cashin. This means you have to start with a good idea of what successful learning would look like, and figure out how your students could give you evidence of that learning.

You’ll also need to think about how much time and priority you allotted to particular concepts this semester. The most important ideas deserve the bulk of our attention, student effort, and class time, so they merit a corresponding proportion of the exam. As the research on the “testing effect” reminds us, if we test primarily on minutiae, our students may leave the course remembering those details, rather than the foundational concepts (Mastascusa, 2011).

You should also consider what proportion of your exam will test higher-order thinking, as opposed to recall. Many test banks tend to focus on recognition questions, rather than analysis. If you want your students to be able to apply concepts in a variety of ways, you’ll need questions that demand that sort of thinking. Of course, your students will also need to practice this thinking in class, repeatedly: we can’t expect them to pick up new reasoning skills for the exam.

Tests and quizzes don’t just measure learning; they should be powerful learning opportunities. We’re asking students to retrieve and apply the ideas they need to take away from our courses, so ideally we are leading them through the thinking we want them to practice. The final exam will be their last experience with your course: what do you want to leave them thinking about?

Practical guidelines and suggestions, plus a checklist for effective tests, are available here. And as always, we’re available to help: feel free to bring us your draft exams if you want feedback!

If you’re ready to work on creating an effective exam, please sign up for our two-part Exam Design Institute, November 7 and 14, 2:00-4:00, in the Stavros Center.

We’re also starting a Faculty Learning Community for Instructors of Large Classes.

To RSVP for either, please email pro-teaching@fsu.edu.

Stay tuned for spring faculty reading groups: the list is coming soon, so you’ll be able to take your book home over the break.