Asking the Right Question Before Creating a Good Answer

Like Simon, I’ve also been wondering “what are exams for?” I want my exams to function first as learning exercises and second as a means of formative assessment. Using exams as  summative assessment instruments ranks for me a distant third.

My exams usually consist entirely of in-class essays.  I provide students with a list of possible questions as a study guide; they get a shortened list for the exam and must select one question apiece from two or three subgroups. Students typically have already encountered some of the questions as short writing assignments that are tied to course readings.

I stress the development of argumentative skills when teaching, and my exams are no different. But students believe that exams should be either-or exercises in the regurgitation of factual knowledge, and they frequently complain that my grading of the arguments they have presented in their exams is “unclear” despite my use of rubrics. I should add that these are not high-stakes events — each exam is usually worth only ten percent of the final grade in the course — but because they are labeled “exams” they loom large in students’ minds.

Time for a change.

In the fall semester, I’m thinking of devoting classroom time on question development. I tried this during the spring semester and it didn’t work very well, possibly because I didn’t have students carefully and deliberately identify what makes one question better than another.

Once students have created an appropriate exam question, they can then determine what is necessary to adequately answer it; for example, by using at least three pertinent examples drawn from reading assignments. This will hopefully lead them into the creation of a rubric, a greater sense of personal investment in and responsibility for the exam process, more frequent interaction with information they will be tested on over a longer period of time, and more learning.

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