Does Your Exam Make the Grade? (Part 2)

Does Your Exam Make the Grade?

Well-crafted exams benefit students and faculty alike. Students will learn, and consolidate their learning, by taking the test; they get to show how much they’ve learned, as well as where they’re still not grasping things. A well-designed exam gives us a more precise measure of learning, and better feedback on how well our courses and instructional strategies are working.
Last fall’s messages about exams focused on “testing what you want to be testing”—in other words, developing exams that are well aligned with your priorities for student learning—and allaying students’ test anxiety. To follow up, here are some practical guidelines for administering exams, from Barbara Gross Davis’s Tools for Teaching (2009).

  1. Make sure your instructions are clear. It’s very helpful to ask a colleague or graduate student to review them. Keep in mind that these instructions need to guide stressed-out students, so they probably need to be simpler and more precise than you expect.
  2. Advise students on how much time to spend on each section. How much of their time a section of the exam deserves should be proportionate with its weight. (This also means that time-consuming problems should be heavily weighted, so you’ll need to decide how important each task is for measuring student learning).
  3. Include a few easy items first, as this will help alleviate students’ anxiety and increase their confidence.
  4. Challenge your strongest students with one very difficult (but reasonable) question. But please locate it toward the end of the exam.
  5. Review the timing. Rushing students actually jeopardizes the validity of your test results, as you end up assessing how quickly students can demonstrate what you think they should know and/or be able to do. Unless one of your course goals entails generating fast responses, a good rule of thumb is to allow at least 3 to 4 times as long as it takes you or a graduate student to complete the test. We often want to put too many questions on an exam, forgetting that students need time to figure out exactly what we’re asking.
  6. Make sure the layout is clear, easy to navigate, includes enough space for responses, etc.

A detailed overview on valid and reliable tests is available here. If you’d like feedback on your exam questions, or you want to talk about aligning your exams with your goals for student learning, we’re here to help.