Exams as Learning
Elzinga teaching ECON 201
with an enrollment of 500.
well-constructed exam can teach students almost as much about a subject
as it tests their knowledge of it. If you are using tests merely to assign
grades, you are missing an opportunity to facilitate learning. According
to McKeachie (1999), students' learning is directly related to what and
how you test; therefore, you must decide in what proportion you want to
emphasize simple memorization of facts versus the ability to apply the
material that students have learned to other situations.
and quizzes will be fair, reliable, and defensible when you follow a few
simple guidelines. Most importantly, your exam must reflect course goals
and objectives. "Of course," you say. But studies have repeatedly
shown that many exams require only the regurgitation of information, even
when instructors embrace and proclaim on their syllabi higher-level cognitive
goals, such as critical examination of ideas, analysis of principles,
problem-solving, and inquiry. You may, of course, need to test students'
knowledge of facts; if so, be sure to test important, fundamental concepts,
principles, and generalizations rather than trivial details, and to construct
good short-answer or objective items.
cases, you cannot usefully measure all course objectives with in-class
exams; rather, you need to check on students' learning in a variety of
ways. To construct a fair evaluation system, determine which goals you
can best measure by tests and which by papers, projects, problem sets,
in-class discussions, oral exams or take-home exams. Consider these factors:
How much "thinking" can be accomplished in a fifteen-minute
- The type
of performance desired: Can an in-class examination measure students'
- The amount
of course time you wish to devote to evaluation. o
- The types
of evaluation, given the size of the class.
When you decide
that you can best assess students' progress with an exam, follow these
the topics you have taught and what students should understand about
how important each topic has been in class and in assignments.
the exam to reflect the topics covered and their relative importance.
your students what to emphasize, so that they can devote the most
energy to the most important material.
an ungraded quiz during the first four weeks of class so students
will know what to expect and how to focus their studying for future
students become test-wise by spending some time explaining test-taking
strategies in advance (see also "Preparing Students for Exams"
and McKeachie, 1999, pp. 95-8).
students the concepts and the language to frame problems which they
then have to answer for themselves.
Writing and Scoring Essay Items
selecting your exam goals and objectives, choose the most appropriate
format: essay, short answer, identification, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank,
and so on. When skillfully crafted and carefully evaluated, essay and
short-answer items can truly measure students' ability to analyze, apply,
or synthesize ideas. It is recommended that you use at least one essay
question per test (McKeachie, 1999). Here are a few guidelines and examples:
- Make sure
each question clearly defines the task. Avoid the broad or ambiguous:
"Summarize the Vietnam War." Phrase the question specifically
and give enough details to explain without giving too much away:
a one-hour Culture Fair presentation to educate Americans about
Arab culture, which three cultural aspects would you emphasize and
why? And which three stereotypes would you challenge and how?
- When you
want students to demonstrate their reasoning ability, word your questions
clearly, as these examples show:
the similarities and differences between . . .
of the following alternatives would you favor, and why?
the main points included in . . .
a set of principles that explain the following events.
(Senator X) be likely to react to this issue? Explain why you answer
as you do.
the following items according to . . .
a list of questions that should be answered before . . .
the principle of . . . as a guide, describe how to solve the following
the strengths and weaknesses of . . .
the scope of the required answer by defining length in time or space
or value in number of points.
students that their essays must have a thesis, a main point clearly
stated and coherently supported.
- Use questions
that have correct answers, even if more than one answer is correct.
Essay questions should measure students' knowledge and reasoning ability,
not opinions or attitudes. Instead of asking, "How do you think
crime could be eliminated?" say, "Describe one proposed method
for controlling crime. Give four reasons why this method would be effective
or ineffective." Score on the accuracy of the information and the
quality of reasoning.
- Allow for
"thought time" in planning exam length. Students need time
to assimilate the question, recall necessary information, choose a position,
and organize their answer. Allow five minutes "thought time"
for an answer requiring fifteen minutes to write.
the relative value of shorter versus longer test items. Shortanswer
items are more specific, better define the task, and are easier to score.
You can include more items and test more topics. Longer essays, however,
better evaluate students' ability to integrate material or explain complex
- Use optional
questions sparingly. Because questions are not equally difficult or
clear, students' choices may unintentionally make the exam harder for
them. Choice also penalizes students who waste time trying to answer
all questions before choosing the one answered "best."
administering the test, develop a scoring key or guide that weights
content, reasoning, and style. Tell students your expectations. Writing
the key will help you spot confusing, ambiguous, or awkward questions;
having the key as you read the first papers will save you from grading
them too easily or harshly. (From Brown, 1981.)
items can help you see how students think about your discipline if you
ask questions that provoke them to analyze, evaluate, or synthesize. Likewise,
short answer questions can be used to test more than facts if they ask
students to demonstrate that they can apply that information to other
situations. If you specify the type of information you seek, you will
prevent students from writing down everything that they know about a subject
in hopes that the right answer is in there somewhere. Additionally, it
will be easier for you to judge whether the student has actually supplied
the required information.
essay answers fairly and reliably, follow these guidelines:
the exam so that you cannot see students' names while scoring. You might
have students write their ID numbers on the exam and then match names
to numbers after scoring.
- Read several
students' answers to each question to verify that your scoring guide
is appropriate. If not, revise accordingly.
- In addition
to assigning numerical or letter grades, note positive features or flaws;
make sure students know the reasons for the grade.
- Read all
students' answers to one question before scoring the next. You will
better remember your expectations and more satisfactorily compare student
performances. Moreover, grading by question rather than by exam makes
you less likely to be biased by a student who responds poorly to one
- After finishing
each question, re-grade a few you graded first to make sure your criteria
have remained consistent.
- Then shuffle
the papers before starting a new question. Imagine being the student
who is always graded after a particularly brilliant writer or reading
an average essay after a terrible one. Either way, preconceptions warp
- After grading
all exams, review items that posed consistent problems to ensure that
they were unambiguous and keyed correctly.
Writing and Scoring Objective Items
objective items or tests can be more reliably graded than essay answers
because a good objective question has only one correct answer; scoring
is not subject to personal impressions or biases. For the same reasons,
objective multiple-choice, matching, truefalse, or fill-in-the-blank items
normally allow students no opportunity to show how they arrived at an
answer. Objective items can, however, measure students' ability to analyze,
evaluate and apply course content to new situations. In addition, they
do measure both simple knowledge and precise discrimination. However,
while grading multiple choice exams is generally faster and easier than
reading a pile of essays, constructing good questions can be difficult.
To create such multiple-choice questions, you must imagine various logical
interpretations of a given situation and offer students those as well
as the correct explanation (Grzelkowski, 1987).
are a few tips:
- In order
to measure students' understanding, use questions requiring them to
predict the outcome of a situation rather than simply label a phenomenon.
- The suggested
wrong answers should represent common errors.
- Ask students
to apply information to a realworld situation using concrete rather
than abstract terms.
- Use a series
of related items in order to measure more complex thinking.
- If you
can't think of a good distractor, don't waste both your time and your
students' by constructing an answer that doesn't really test discrimination.
Three possible answers can be as effective as four (Costin, qtd. in
McKeachie, 1999, p. 93).
- Use "all
of the above" and "none of the above" rarely. They are
not particularly useful in testing discrimination or knowledge.
with such items enables you to reduce grading time and improve reliability
while maintaining some indication of how your students reason. If you
use relatively innovative items, however, discuss samples ahead of time
and, on the exam, group these questions separately from fact questions.
construct problem sets that frequently occur on math and science exams,
use these guidelines:
- Make sure
your problems resemble those in practice exercises.
- Make the
problems interesting by giving real applications or by combining two
concepts for a more engaging (and more difficult) challenge.
on ideas rather than on long, detailed computations.
grading objective questions can be quick, writing them should take some
time. As with essay questions, you need to match them to course objectives
and maintain the balance of topics in the course. Use the checklist below
to review your objective questions:
balanced exam coverage that reflects course content, construct test items
for the most important concepts after each class. With two multiplechoice
questions and one essay or problem per class, you begin an item bank for
exam preparation. Select a good cross section of items to create the final
test, and consider a mixed format of subjective and objective items.
probably not be able to test as much material as you would like; students
must have enough time to attempt all questions. To check on exam length,
take the exam yourself, or have a colleague take it before you administer
it. Read each question thoroughly, including all options, and write out
each essay completely. Students will require three or four times
the amount of time an expert needs. As a rough guide for objective items,
assume that a simple recall item will take 30 seconds to answer; one that
requires an analysis or evaluation will take one to two minutes; and one
that requires calculation will vary according to the complexity of the
calculation. If scheduling allows, you may want to consider untimed exams,
allowing students to begin early or continue beyond the class time; you
are then more certain to measure what students know rather than how fast
they can process information and record answers.
for Writing Objective Test Items
Do you have:
_____ clearly defined course goals?
_____ items that match your course goals?
_____ clear and well-defined directions and questions? _____ all
the information necessary to answer the question? _____ a difficulty
level appropriate for your students?
_____ questions of varying difficulty?
_____ items cast in positive form? If you must use negative items,
do you point them out to students?
_____ a scoring key? Does every item have a single correct answer?
Is the right answer unquestionably right?
_____ avoided giving grammatical clues or response-length clues
to right answers?
_____ avoided a pattern of correct responses (e.g., abab)? _____
had a colleague review questions for clarity?
students need to know whether they are studying correctly and learning
what they should; you need to know whether they're learning what you're
- To help
your students learn best, test them (if only with a lightly weighted
exam or quiz) no later than one month into the semester and return results
quizzes, exams, papers, and projects reasonably so that testing does
not consume too much class time.
- To assess
students' work regularly, announce tenminute quizzes at specific times
and allow questions in the classes prior to quizzes. "Pop"
quizzes and tests on reading or lectures that students have not been
able to discuss with you may produce undue anxiety and an unpleasant
learning environment unless they can have only a positive effect on
a student's grades (see Wegner, 1996).
Preparing Students for Exams
prepare your students to take the type of exam you choose. Here are a
- If you
are testing at an analytical and intellectual level, show during lectures
and discussions how to reason towards solutions, analyze problematic
circumstances, weigh pros and cons. Such activities benefit students
who in the past have been rewarded for only encoding and recalling information
and who don't know how to answer other types of questions.
- When you
use multiple-choice items to assess thinking, hand out two previous
exam questions in each class. After students have about two minutes
to answer the questions, give the correct answers and respond to their
queries. Not only do students learn how to think for the exam, they
and you both see how much they understand.
- To prepare
students for thought-provoking essay questions, try Ziegler's model
(1989). A week before the first exam, explain your expectations for
essays, including study techniques, ways to answer questions, and specific
details on grading factors. Then, as students leave the exam itself,
hand out three sample responses to exam questions (written at "A,"
"C," and "F" levels) for them to grade according
to your criteria, with a short justification. As soon as possible, average
the grades students assigned and discuss them. Students quickly learn
to distinguish good essay answers.
found that collaborative learning techniques work best for me. My approach
is to create a safe learning environment, where students are encouraged
to take chances, experiment, and learn from each other.
an exam, clarify the students' task and create a supportive atmosphere:
- Be sure
that all copies of the exam are legible, paying special attention to
graphs or diagrams. Bring extra copies in case pages are missing or
illegible. If errors are discovered, write corrections on the board
and draw all students' attention to them.
- Review instructions
orally, and note exam page length.
that students browse through the exam and ask necessary questions.
- To let
students know how much time is left, write the time on the board and
quietly update it each 15 minutes without interrupting.
- To avoid
after-the-fact disputes about unintentionally ambiguous items or to
permit variable interpretations, let students justify possibly questionable
answers on the back of the test. Their responses will also help you
to avoid similar problematic questions in the future.
- If you
choose not to remain in the room, tell students where they can find
you during the exam if they need to ask questions.
use a multiple-choice format, your tests can be electronically scored
at Computing Services in Carruthers Hall or Wilson Hall. To get details
about how to do this, check with the Office of Information, Technology
and Communication or look on the ITC web site: http://www.itc.virginia.edu/desktop/
unix/docs/u022.testscor.html. If you are giving several computer-scorable
tests in a course, you can use a grading program to add subsequent scores
and know the total points for any student at any time. You can also request
that your data be mailed to your electronic mail address in ASCII format.
After the Test
learn from exams when feedback is timely and clear. Write specific corrections
and responses on individual papers and distribute or post a key for objective
answers. Offer feedback in marginal comments on essays to help students
perform better on the next exam. Studies have shown that when marginal
comments on earlier tests emphasized a particular skill (e.g., creativity
or presenting coherent arguments), use of that skill was improved on the
next exam (Johnson, 1975, qtd. in McKeachie, 1999, p.91). Return exams
as quickly as possible (during the next class for objective exams), and
clarify misunderstandings revealed during scoring, without wasting time
by walking students through the entire exam. Set discussion guidelines
to avoid unproductive debates: for example, set a time limit for questions
raised in class; offer to consider an argument for a variant answer if
the student submits it in writing. Exams can also facilitate learning
if you allow failing students to take a make-up exam and earn up to the
passing grade. Rewarding students willing to study material and gain mastery
reduces test anxiety for most students.