Testing… Testing…1, 2…1, 2

Special Guest Blogger, Josh Hite, Academic Chair and Assistant Professor of English, VSCC Livingston/VSCC CHECJosh Hite with plate of crabs

“I love giving tests because I do not have to teach when I give them; I love grading tests because it takes up my ‘me’ time” said no teacher ever. When I took British Literature as a sophomore, Dr. Laird gave an eleven question quiz over the reading for each day. I loved Dr. Laird’s teaching, and I even became fairly good at her quizzes (I could anticipate what questions she would ask); however, I did not like the time that the quizzes took from class instead of hearing the interaction with the text that Dr. Laird would turn into lectures and class discussions. I read the material, made good grades, and felt that the quizzes ate class time – usually 20 minute chunks of each 50 minute class. Though I understood the necessity of her giving these quizzes so that students would read, I really thought that they took away from the class as a whole. I would rather have her lessons than her quiz. Now that I teach literature myself, I understand the need for these quizzes and other tests, but I strive to not let these assessments dominate the class.

My Guidelines

The following are my guidelines which I implement through the Volunteer State Learning Management System (LMS) we call eLearn/D2L:

Short QuizzesThis addresses the issue that arose some two decades ago. For example, 11 multiple select or short fill in the blank questions in 10 minutes. This can test a student’s close reading of the material. Though not a full blown advocate for showing memory or seeing if the student read the material or not, I have been impressed by students striving to do well on these quizzes and thus reading and annotating the material closely. Such an interaction with the text (or other material) promotes understanding.

Longer Exams – Unlike the short quizzes, longer exams should test mastery (not rote memory) of material. These tests are more difficult to grade; however, judging one’s understanding rather than memory is, in general, more difficult to assess. An example longer test can have multiple parts: short identification with answers of around 100 words explaining the significance of the term AND longer, open ended questions that would need around 500 words to make a successful argument and show an understanding of the issue along in a logical, organized fashion. These tests do not occur all the time and we should work towards relieving student anxieties about testing. (See “not every question matters” and “pools of questions”.)

Pools of Questions – No two students should receive the same test/quiz. Short quizzes with 10 or so questions should have pools of more than 20 questions. Longer tests which use essays should have extra large pools. With a test that has two essay questions and the student chooses one to answer, the pool may be some 50 questions or so. If there are five short identifications, the pool may be over 100 possible. Making all these questions available to students provides them with a study guide. (While I do not think that they will answer every question before the test, I do not see this as cheating since if they want to answer all the questions, they will most likely learn the material in the process.) These expanded pools for both quizzes and tests not only cut down on the likelihood of cheating, they offer variety and a random nature of delivery in which the teacher is removed.

Timed assessments – The focus should be understanding the material instead of understanding where to find the material at their leisure. If the test were to remain open for multiple days, many more questions could be included on the test. While timed assessments may decrease the likelihood of academic dishonesty, the real benefit is that the student knows she must prepare before starting the assessment. Instead of simply finding an answer and moving to the next, the student now needs to have a working knowledge of the material, though not needing to have the material memorized.

Not Every Question MattersSome questions create a mental block until the test is over, and that happens; however, if every question creates that mental block, then the student may have issues beyond the test itself. From the pool of questions, create a smaller pool: If the student has a longer answer essay type question on the test, give her two choices from the pool and let her pick which one to answer. Not everyone can be a master of everything. Creating these options for students puts the responsibility on them to know the material, and they cannot blame the single question worth so much. Let students choose 3 out of 5 questions to answer or 30 out of 50; just give them some choices and enable them succeed. Everyone has a bad day or draws a blank on a question. Not everyone should be punished for that though.

In this same mindset, let students drop quizzes. Quiz early and often, but let the students know that one (or three) bad day(s) will not doom a student to not passing. If daily quizzes exist (30 or so), drop bout 5. If the student misses a quiz, that can be one that is dropped. If the computer freezes in the middle of the quiz, that can lead to a dropped quiz. If someone had a sleepless night or if someone just had a heart break, that can lead to a dropped quiz. Life happens and this is a great way to give an escape without having to make a judgement.

Bonus Questions – If 100% is perfect and everyone is perfect, something is wrong. This is not Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Make perfect equal to 110% and make the assessment questions difficult. Imagine if every hitter in MLB batted 1.000! The best batters hit .300+. The best students will be challenged and will rise to the top. Remember that an “A” is not always 90-100; it could be just as easily be 80-100.

Spread the Assessments – Make it easier to make the “C” but harder to make the “A.” Help students achieve by not lowering the standards but by raising them and helping each student achieve her individual goal. Some students will excel at writing papers; some will excel at discussions; some will excel at quick quizzes from memory; some will excel at longer, in-depth tests; some will excel with self-assessments; but only the ones who excel at most, if not all, of these should be the ones who make that “A”. This can be flipped: Some will not excel at this or that, but that does not mean the student should not pass. Do not let students be locked into a system in which they have no way of showing any success.

A Side Note:

Automatic grading – Set up the quick quizzes that will be graded automatically. Multiple choice/select and short answer fill-in-the-blank questions work great in giving quick assessments. Relying on these assessments alone will not help demonstrate a full understanding of the topic. If you, the teacher, fill that your job could be taken over by a computer (or a computer program), you probably are not that valuable to your students. A teacher must accurately assess the complex, nuanced nature of the understanding which the students have. A computer cannot do this. A teacher will react and help the student learn best, not just assign pages and grade through a Scantron.

Teacher read assessments – This is where some of the most productive assessments can take place. Though they may not be easy to grade, essays can best help show an understanding of the material. Clearly and effectively communicating the material while demonstrating relationships and showing the importance of the knowledge is a higher form of learning. Let the students work to teach the teachers – us – in their assessments. After all, we teachers started understanding the material better when we had to teach it to someone else.

When I roll into my Literature classes now, I sit with my students and discuss the material instead of offering quizzes. In order to make this an online class after I everything was in place, I simply made the discussions online. When it was time to teach a hybrid, some of the discussion was online, but the structure was all the same. Only the medium changed. Too often we think that what works face to face will not work online or vice versa. Good teaching is good teaching, and the LMS is just that: a Learning Management System.