Questions on assessment (from my class)

1. Try to recall some of your strongest memories of exams and testing from your college days. What were your most positive evaluation experiences? Describe. Conversely, what were the most negative ones? Why?

Strongest negative memory: An upper division history course taught by a professor who received two PhDs from Oxford. We were all in awe of him. I studied like crazy, took lots of notes, prepared for the final (the only test) and made a B because I did not make personal statements about the topic. (I honestly didn’t understand it well enough to be able to do that, but if the exam was supposed to be grading my learning, then it was okay there. But I still hated it.)

Other negative memory: A Texas history professor who asked such nit-picky details that we described his test questions as “things like the name of the horse that the survivor of the Alamo rode to get away.”

Strongest positive memory: This was not of tests. My strongest positive memories were of research papers. I loved the diving into a subject, studying it, and immersing myself in it. Sometimes it would take me a while to get started, but I really did well once I chose a topic. My favorites were in recent European history and Latin American history. I made B’s in the courses, but I made high A’s on the research papers and I have re-used the information I learned in those papers for decades. They were very useful.

2. Review the courses you teach (course outline, syllabus, and textbooks), as well as the exams and assignments that contribute to the final course grade. Are all major topics and the course learning outcomes thoroughly evaluated? Are the subordinate competencies (specific and discrete) adequately evaluated?

I discovered that my final was not covering what it should have been covering in Brit Lit. I am going back over it today and for the next few days to recreate it.

I also may have to go over my whole syllabus and remove some works in order to give more room to higher level learning. (We can’t read fifty things in twenty days if we are supposed to be analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating them.)

3. Do the graded assignments and examinations reflect the domains (cognitive, psychomotor, affective) and specific taxonomy levels listed in the course outline? In other words, are high-level learning outcomes and competencies evaluated? Furthermore, are psychomotor and affective domain mastery evaluated (or just cognitive)?

See answer above. But I think that I give a lot more lower-level grading than I would like to in order to ensure that the reading is actually done.

The papers are all higher level learning.

And I have already added two affective questions to this next final. I’m asking them to identify a work for each era which they feel would be the seminal work if we could only read one for that time period and to discuss why they think that, especially in light of the learning objectives and outcomes listed for the course.

4. Are there adequate evaluation opportunities in your courses? Are a variety of evaluation processes used?

Yes. All my classes have TONS of grading because I am going overboard to do the opposite of what Dr. Spencer did… Maybe I need to stop doing quite so much grading because I am getting a little behind on that.

5. What does the phrase “teaching to the test” mean to you?

It means that you only teach what is on the test and you teach nothing else. If the test is something like the NClex, for nursing, then you must do that because the test evaluates high level learning by asking the student to choose the best answer… It means, though, that there is not a lot of leeway in what you teach.

College teachers usually create their own tests. They know what is on them and they should certainly make the information available to the students through discussions, readings, lectures, activities, and assignments.

But students often expect a review handout that covers every single question on a test, rather than types of questions or types of information. If the teacher says that is what the review handout is for, then clearly it should do that. However I often see students not studying, but memorizing the review handout. Then, when they go to a test, they are upset because the question, as presented in the review, was not on the exam. That’s ridiculous. Why should you need to come to class if the review handout is all you need to know for the exam?

In addition I have upon rare occasions had a teacher who taught only what was on the test and nothing else. Each class period consisted of covering ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of material which was boiled down to a single question on the exam. And that was all the class consisted of. I am opposed to this approach.

Thankfully I am in English and for freshman composition, my most common course, the tests of all kinds are writing. Since the focus of the course is writing and the students are writing and the tests are writing, there is a clear confluence of testing and teaching coming together. (At least that is the goal.)

In my British Literature course, I primarily use out of class papers, where the students have to integrate what they learned in class and what they have found or discovered on their own. I do have two exams, though, which cover factual materials in a paragraph form. In those exams the students must write about the work addressing a certain question.

Because the course is involved and we do lots of reading, I allow the students to use their notes. They cannot use the book, but they can use anything that they created. This does two things. It encourages reading as we go along (because there is no way they can do all the reading before the exams) and it encourages them to take extensive notes on my lectures, our discussions, and the texts themselves.

Some teachers might feel that they ought to remember the issues on their own, but I feel that the way I have created the test allows me much more flexibility and gives the students a greater likelihood of doing well.

I don’t expect them to have memorized Beowulf or Paradise Lost. I don’t expect them to remember every description of the characters in Gulliver’s Travels. But I do expect them to have a general grasp of the work (both for the test and afterwards) and to be able to find the more specific information (either in their notes for the test, or on the internet throughout their life).

In addition, for the final, I ask the students to create questions based on the information we have covered in the course. I usually use at least two of those and if they come up with a question I was already planning on, I let them know that as well. …In a class with twenty questions, I will say, “Four of these will be on the test. Two of them were already on the test and two of them have been chosen from your suggestions.” I do not, though, tell them which those are.

This was an answer I gave to a related question before we had really read about or talked about assessment.

I still like my final; I’m just no longer sure that it is testing what it ought to be testing.

6. How do you feel about “high stakes” end of course tests?

Because of my experience with the history course, I do not like them.

Because of my experience with the Regents finals in New York high schools, I love them.

I think that the concept of teaching to the test is mostly, though not entirely, a function of the accountability process put into place in our K-12 system. Most people who teach to the test in this environment are doing so with the expectation of teaching their students the fundamental knowledge which is necessary for them to pass on to their next stage of learning.

Sometimes this is essential and useful. What if there were no understanding of end outcomes for a course/class/year/school? Then each one would be different and a student from one would not have learned or even studied the same things that a student from another did. We would not have anything like a basic level that could be assumed within education.

And this can be useful for a teacher as well. I went to high school in New York, where every student in a course must take the statewide final exam in their course. It did several things for the teachers.

First, it removed the onus of “it was too hard for X” because it is a statewide requirement that you know how to prove that a line has 180 degrees (or whatever).

Second, the final was useful because it gave the teachers a clear set of objectives to be aiming for. World history wasn’t just supposed to talk about the history of a single country outside of the US, but was supposed to cover art and architecture and politics throughout world cultures. European history wasn’t just modern or early, but covered everything from the Etruscans forward.

Third, it allowed teachers a bit of flexibility in grading. This was not mandated (like it presently is in Dallas or Pittsburgh), but a student not doing well in a course, but TRYING, could be given a low passing grade with the clear understanding that the student would not pass the course if they could not pass the final. That was a statewide requirement. So a teacher could reward effort of a student without doing social promotion or effort promotion for the entire course.

7. Do you feel there is a conscious effort to tie assessments to objectives?

You know, I do. Even after having reviewed my final for Brit Lit and having found it wanting, I still think so.

I wrote the Brit Lit final based on what I wanted.

I wanted the students to read and remember the works. I wanted them to take notes. I wanted them to know the different types of literature we covered.

All that is basic learning that doesn’t always happen in a classroom. So it is what I was testing for.

However, the learning outcomes from the syllabus, as given by the department, don’t ask for knowledge level information.

8. Do you have an thoughts on course and instructor assessments?

Of course.

I like them all right, even though the people who write the most are usually the ones who are the most unhappy.

9. How can informal assessments inform our teaching?

As described by the class facilitator, not through much. I did give a quiz over a lecture to see if they were listening. (I don’t know if they were. I haven’t yet taken the time to grade it.)

I would love to hear what you would answer to some or all of these questions. Which ones struck the strongest chord with you?

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