Teaching Seminar 1997
Once again -- the disclaimer: this is not an absolute guideline. Much of it is my opinion and a rehash of what I was told when I took a teaching course.
You hated them as a student... you'll hate them as a teacher....
The Purposes of Exams
Differentiating Students with Tests
If you are dealing with large numbers of students, your tests should divide them into grading categories. If all the students are making A's and B's, your tests aren't doing their job properly. Even at a highly selective school, differentiating should be possible. To accomplish this goal you should include items of varying difficulty. Analogy questions, for example, should divide the A's from the B's and the B's from the C's.
Type of Test
You have several choices: essay, short answer, multiple choice, matching, true/false.
Representativeness of Material on Tests
Test material comes from the lecture and the book. If most of the material in lecture is unrelated to the book, and the test covers mostly book material, then the test is unfair. If, however, you tell students that only book material will be covered on the exams, then you may have an empty classroom. You should talk about the book in lecture and include it on the test with some consideration of the amount of emphasis laced on the readings.
Another problem is that some material is more easily tested than other material. This is true of multiple choice and essays. We must find ways to test both easy and hard material.
Finally, footnotes aren't good or fair testing sources.
Writing Multiple Choice Questions
Because this will probably be the most often used format (given class sizes and concerns for objectivity), we will spend some time discussing how to create a good multiple choice question. This is not a trivial thing to do.
There are various categories that possible answers fall into:
The following are some more specific pointers to keep in mind when writing:
Take Home Exams
One way to avoid using up alot of class time with exams is to give take home exams. Take home exams may also allow you to assign questions which would require deeper synthesis and more complete, detailed answers. Also, it gets rid of the time pressure problem (to some extent). However, the big potential difficulty with take home exams is cheating (i.e. collusion). One way to avoid collusion is to forewarn students that if you see alot of similarity between two exams, then those students will be questioned personally.
How long for a take home exam? This is a hot issue. If you give a long time (e.g. 5-7 days) then students have time to put it off a little if they have another test, etc. They may just put it off. If there is a short time limit (e.g. 48 hours) then students can put off the other work until they finish the test.
Be sure that the students actually read the test questions when they are handed out. Make them type their responses!
Grading Essay and Short Answer Exams
Grade all of one question before going on to the next question. This will help ensure fairness across tests. You'll be better able to remember how many partial credit points you gave for what if you do all of one question at a time.
What about students with better writing skills? Should they get extra points for this? It shouldn't matter but it does. Making allowances for poor writing skill is like making allowances for poor IQ. One of the goals of college is that students learn to express themselves well. It's really two issues:
A similar problem occurs with oral exams. How much should one allow for individual differences in speaking style? Again, speaking style is something that you should learn.
So, when grading, set up an explicit criterion for grading. State it clearly on the test, or make it implicit in the question. This way students will know exactly what you want, and tests will be easier to grade.
There are pros and cons of oral exams.
Bad points: They are time consuming. There is generally high test anxiety in the student. You must isolate the student or give different questions (which may not really be equally difficult). Grading is pretty subjective, and thus may lead to fairness problems.
Good points: It's more like real life. You can find out how the student "thinks on his/her feet." You can go into more depth. you can lead a student -- help them think through the problem and find the solution.
In a committee, the student can be unfairly skewered between persons with opposing positions. Always try to avoid or cut off this sort of situation.
Questions must be open ended. Always ask the student to clarify what he/she means -- he/she may not know what's being asked, so the question should be restated back to the questioner. If the student doesn't know the answer? Move on...
Papers give students the chance to be more active and do something besides simple regurgitation. (This may be difficult for some, because regurgitation is what is usually stressed throughout school, and they may have gotten good at it without developing other skills.)
Promote enthusiasm and active learning by letting them choose their own topic (within the range of the course). This encourages the student to master an area of interest and exposes him/her to original literature.
Tell the students precisely what you want. When it is the first paper, the students may need alot of help. Let them know exactly how important each part is: literature review, organization, evaluation, critique. Do they need to present original thoughts? There are different kinds of students, and some will be good at one part while others will be good at other parts.
Grading papers: This is difficult, and time consuming if you do a good job. Especially if more than one paper is required in a course, give alot of feedback so that students will have an idea about how to improve their future papers. A letter grade alone at the end of a paper is easier for you, but doesn't help the learning process much. One particular problem is the great paper from the poor student -- what happened? There is no easy answer here, and plagiarism is difficult to prove.