Sunday, January 31, 2010

How You Test Is How They Will Learn

Quick Announcement: If you want to see our new (free, online) Financial Accounting textbook, you can go to -- heck, start reading and get an accounting education. You can check out the Socratic Method and watch my videos. See how many of embedded exercises you can answer.

No matter what students or faculty tell you, students learn based on how they are tested and graded. Too many teachers tell students “I do not want you to memorize; I want you to understand.” Then, they test memorization. The grapevine in college is strong. If your tests emphasize memorization, then every student will know that by the third day in class and they will react accordingly.

So, ask yourself what your complaint is about your students (it is hard to have a perfect class; I assume you will have some complaints). Then, ask yourself whether there is something that you can do through the testing process to fix that complaint. I always assume that complaints can be solved by better communication (“stop doing that”) or by better testing.

When it comes to testing, I have three suggestions for you to ponder:

(1) – I give three tests per semester (plus a comprehensive final exam). I don’t like taking up three entire days for testing but I find that students react better if there is a test in their relatively near future.

(2) – In the last 10 years, I have started spending a lot more time writing my tests than I did in the 30 previous years. Consequently, my test questions have gotten a lot better. I usually begin a couple days ahead by writing a rough draft and then I edit it several times. Seems like too much work but I do believe that the word has gotten around that I am looking for something more than memorization. I also give all of my students the tests that I used in the previous year just so they get a feel for what I am looking for them to learn.

(3) – Most importantly, I allow the students to bring one full page (front and back) of notes to the test. I have found that this policy was good for both them and me. Creating that page of notes helps students to assess what is most important in the coverage. They only have one page so they have to consider seriously what to include. And, it clearly points out to them that I am looking for something more than memorization. There is no reason to memorize anything if you can write it down on a sheet of paper and bring it with you. But, I think I am actually the real beneficiary. If you know the students are sitting there with a page of notes, you cannot fall back on memorization questions. You force yourself to go beyond what they have written down—to think of what use can be made of that information. How can you test real understanding? Consequently, I have come to really enjoy writing tests because it is a challenge and a puzzle to push them beyond their sheet of paper.

Students will learn based on how they expect to be tested. Take advantage of that.


  1. i agree so much with this approach. Information is so much more easily available now than it was even a generation ago, and it should fundamentally change how we learn and how we teach. "Drill and kill" worked 100 years ago when you needed the information in your head because, otherwise, you had no access to it. Now, it's more important to teach how to synthesize information gathered from far and wide to make the appropriate decision.

  2. Allowing one sheet of paper is a good tool. That option let students know what the teacher really wants......less memorization but more analysis

  3. Perfect! and no surprise given what I know of you and your insights into teaching. For my first-year seminar last year, I told my students they could use the book, their notebook, an outline, whatever prep they did, etc. etc. Even the Internet. The only thing they couldn't do was write their essays in conversation with anyone during the exam. That writing and thinking had to be their own. Then I formulated a question that asked them to make creative, insightful connections (and yes, I'd modeled those during the class) among a wide range (I specfied six) of the essays we'd read, and to do the connecting in terms of one of our class activities (online, as it happened, which fit the topic of the class, "New Media Studies"). My idea was to give them an exam that would have elicited what I'd consider a wonderful class discussion, but each had to do it on his or her own. There was no way to do well on the exam unless one had been fully engaged all semester long. You can't cram immersion (and that's not a Baptist joke). The best exams were wonderful, and at their best they showed me connections I hadn't imagined. Great stuff.

    Charles Davis sent me the link to your blog. Really glad to see you here. I expect I owe you an email....

  4. Here's one thing I think teachers should consider. Students come to my office frequently and say "I like your class and I really would like to make an A and I'm willing to do the work -- so how should I prepare for your tests." That is a very reasonable question. If you are going to say,"don't memorize," then it is only fair to provide some genuine guidance on what you expect. I don't think anything is gained by setting up a challenge and then assuming they can figure it out all by themselves. At the moment, my answer is (1) you have to understand everything we cover in class backwards and forwards, (2) be very careful in what you put on your one page of notes, and (3) read each question with extreme care and then think carefully about how to apply (1) and (2) to that question. I like that answer but I don't love it. So, I'm still working on it. (Any help is appreciated?)

    Tell Charles Davis (Baylor) that he owes all of his great success to me. It is not true but it is a good story.

  5. I utilize the "3 x 5 card" which they are allowed for notes. Merely deciding what goes on the card forces them to prioritize. Not only does this get them to learn the material, it teaches them an essential skill of LIFE which is:

    you can accomplish anything, but NOT everything. The single biggest skill in goal setting is PRIORITIZING. It's one of the single biggest skills they can learn in LIFE. Ultimately, they must all answer the question, "What things are really IMPORTANT to me?" In other words, "What is going on my "3 by 5 card of life?"

  6. As a student I have found that getting to bring in one page (or index card) of notes to an exam is most helpful. If you are able to use all notes, books, etc, some students will not bother to study as much, assuming they can find the material during the test – which never turns out to be successful. However just creating your "cheat sheet" forces you to review everything in order to determine what's most important. The funny thing is that on the majority of my exams in college where I was allowed to bring in a paper with my notes, I already knew everything on the page from studying and rarely looked at it, other than for long formulas, but having the piece of paper was a comfort.