Few Key Guidelines
According to Mary Piontek in Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams instructors can “develop exams that provide useful and relevant data about their students’ learning” by beginning test design with a few key guidelines in mind:
- Focus on the most important course objectives you have emphasized during your course – the distribution of items should reflect the relative emphasis you gave to content coverage and skill development. See General Steps in Test Construction and Test Construction Grid to help with gaining an overview for prioritizing and distribution.
Form/Format of Exams in Light of Course Objectives
- Review the items after a “cooling off” period and ahead of a “the test is coming up soon” period – so that you can critique each item for its relevance to what you have actually taught. See Alternative Assessment Strategies and Developing Formal Assessments of Higher Levels of Learning as you consider what/which test formats best align with course objectives.
Choice Matters: Wording Test Directions and Questions
- Prepare test directions carefully – to provide students with information about the test’s purpose, format, time allowed, and scoring criteria. Consider this point from Chris Galdieri, UM doctorate newly conferred as he begins a political science teaching position at a New Hampshire uni:
Exam questions are a great place to emphasise inclusive language. There hasn’t yet been a woman president, for instance, but there’s no reason there can’t be in a question about a hypothetical president on your exam. Similarly, there’s no reason a hypothetical candidate on a question can’t be named Reyes instead of Smith.
Learning in Anticipation of Exams
In preparing for exams students often separate “preparing for test” from processes of “learning.” When students engage in practice of “cramming,” or think in terms of “information I need to know” rather than study the ways ideas, concepts and information come together, they by-pass practices that support how the brain learns. According to James Zull the “pillars of the brain” organize cycles of learning as follows:
- gathering data / lecture, reading, lab, experience
- reflecting / sorting and merging data
- creating meaning / selecting relevant data in problem-solving
- testing in action / writing, talking, collaborating to enact learning
To engage students fully in that learning cycle, both John Lowe (chemistry, UPenn) and Barbara Gross Davis (educational psychology, UCBerkeley) advocate setting up classroom practices supporting culture of learning with regard to exam preparation from the first days of class:
- Barbara Gross Davis opens “Allaying Students’ Anxieties About Tests” with General Strategies and Preparing Students for Exams (focusing on first weeks/exams) and then moves into ideas for allying anxieties / building capacities for successful test taking across the curriculum and cutting across class size.
- John Lowe – like Gross Davis – is keen to bring learning to exam preparation and performance, and in Assessment that Promotes Learning he proposes ways of using student self-assessment of exam taking along with goal setting to set up low-intensity instructor feedback that has proven to deepen student learning before exams, to build knowledge about test taking, and to improve test performance – especially in large enrollment courses.