I have written about one essay on teaching per month for the past 10 years or so and I still seem to have more to say. If you would like to receive a short email whenever I post a new essay, drop me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu. I won't use the email for any other purpose.
A friend (Dr. Paul Clikeman) and I are leading a faculty discussion in our building next month on testing. It is a great topic for conversation because it is such a regular and critical interaction between every student and their teacher. More arguments surely occur over test grades than anything else in the daily teaching process.
There are many serious questions that our faculty group can discuss during this time.
--Should teachers give objective tests or subjective tests?
--Should teachers consider Bloom’s taxonomy when writing test questions?
--Should speed in completing the test be a factor in the grading? (In other words, should slower students be penalized for working slowly and, possibly, not finishing all the questions?)
--How can the teacher prevent cheating?
--Should students be allowed to have notes or other aids during a test?
--Should grades be distributed on a predetermined curve?
--How should a teacher determine if a student really deserves an A?
--Is there really a difference between a B+ and A- (or between a C+ and a B-)?
--Should teachers make previous tests available to students?
--Should teachers reuse tests?
--Should teachers use questions from a test bank produced by a textbook publisher?
--How can teachers grade written essay answers fairly and consistently?
--Should teachers pass out an answer sheet?
--How can teachers be sure questions do not have inherent flaws?
--Is it better to give a lot of good grades or a lot of bad grades? Some people have high means whereas others have low means. Is one preferable?
--Is testing even necessary? Should teachers stick to papers and presentations for grading purposes and avoid tests completely?
Those are all great questions but there is one question that I think must come before all of these questions and it is the point of this essay. Why do you give tests in the first place? The answer might seem obvious but your response will affect the answers to almost all of the above questions.
You really need to be comfortable with why you give examinations before you attempt to write any exam questions.
I tried to come up with several reasons for giving an exam. I am going to list these randomly. I would like for you to pick the top one for you because I think that will help as you consider how to write better exam questions in the future.
Here are possible answers to my basic question in no particular order.
A –Tests provide evidence for grades. A teacher has to give grades. They really do not need to serve any other purpose. They can be used to show the student why a certain grade was given.
B – Tests can be used to motivate students. Almost every teacher, at some point, has threatened, “This will be on the next test,” just to get the students to wake up and pay more attention. It provides a bit of urgency for the students.
C – Tests are good challenges. Without tests, many students would tend to be mediocre. Students are human and human beings need the challenge provided by a test in order to do their best work. If a test is not appropriately challenging, the best students will feel betrayed – they worked hard for nothing (and they won’t make that mistake a second time).
D – Tests help guide students by showing them what you want them to learn. If you want them to memorize, then you test them on memorization. If you want them to develop critical thinking skills, then you must test them on their development of critical thinking skills. Students pay attention to test questions and catch on to what you are trying to accomplish.
E – Tests provide the teacher with a good means of self-evaluation. Student answers show the teacher what has been learned to date so the teacher can judge whether that is sufficient and take corrective actions if the results are not as hoped. For example, if many students miss the same question, either the question was written poorly or the students were not properly prepared for it.
F - Tests help students to determine how they are doing in relation to the others in the class. For example, a low grade on a test can indicate that the student needs to try different study habits or invest more hours to catch up with the other students.
Okay, my guess is that you are saying to yourself, “Well, 3 or 4 of those answers apply to me to some extent. I have several important reasons for testing.”
Be that as it may, I think every teacher should take the plunge and have one primary reason clearly in mind for every test. It is hard to write questions properly if you do not have a definite reason for the test in mind.
Speaking strictly for me, I do have one goal for every test and that is (D) – I mean for my tests to help guide the students by showing them what I want them to learn. I don't want their to be any ambiguity. I have long had the motto, “The way you test is the way the students will learn.” Consequently, I attempt to tie every test question to my overall goal for the semester.
On the first day of class (and often thereafter), I tell my students that my class has only one purpose, “I am going to present you with weird, odd, and unusual situations and then help you figure out how to resolve those logically according to accepted accounting principles.” We do that every day. Then, in every question on every test, I try to present my students with weird, odd, and unusual situations and see if they can now logically figure out on their own how to resolve those according to accepted accounting principles.
Of course, I don't teach history, English, or biology, but I think I could adapt that goal if I did teach other subjects.
I must admit that I really like establishing a tie between my class goal and my tests.
Yes, I have other reasons to give tests. For example, I like that they can motivate and challenge the students. However, the primary reason, by far, that I give exam questions is to guide the students toward what I want them to learn.
Why do you give tests? Have a clear answer in mind and you might find that the testing process becomes a more beneficial component of your teaching.