Sunday, January 31, 2010

How You Test Is How They Will Learn

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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.

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