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Teacher’s Voice

Thinking about Exams

By MINA WONG - May 17 2024
Thinking about Exams

For years, all the courses I taught had a three-hour midterm exam, and a three-hour final exam. But a whopping six out of forty-two hours for testing in every course started to trouble me: my students could’ve used that time for learning, studying, collaborating, and researching. Instead, they crammed before long exams, harbouring a high level of stress and anxiety every time.

Why stress and anxiety? An exam only allows one attempt to get the right answers. While students can cram, there’s no second chance, no trial and error or feedback, and no collaboration with peers. It’s a one-person sweatshop, for better or worse. Some colleagues even call it “regurgitation”.

Some colleagues and I wondered: instead of midterm and final exams, could we let students earn the same marks through other learning experiences? The opinion from administration then was a resounding “no”, citing rationale and policy: “Many courses, especially first and second semester ones, and those with multiple classes, must have the same structure of midterm and final exams. Besides, tests are also learning activities.”

Point taken! We recognized organizational and logistical reasons for exams, twice in every course, every semester!

But we also saw how every class was slightly different, and that not all students achieved their personal best through multiple hours of testing per course. We wanted to replace six hours of exams with learning, and reserve only one hour for a midterm quiz.

We pushed our ideas without giving up. Then one semester when I was about to teach a new course to third and fourth semester students, I saw an opportunity to replace exams with a curriculum that built marketable skills and collaborative leadership, to better reflect students’ future employment. While a colleague teaching the same course continued with a midterm and final exam, I kept my word to design a one-hour midterm quiz as the only test.

To my surprise, administration gave the green light, and true to my word, I didn’t give exams except an 8% midterm quiz.

That semester, my students didn’t cram for exams, but worked on individual and group assignments. Almost no one skipped classes because we had in-class activities that earned marks. The end results were final grades ranging from C- to A+ without a single F.

Still, one student’s question prompted me to revisit the meaning of exams: early one semester, a young lady was late submitting her first assignment but asked when we’d have a test. When she realized we’d only have a midterm quiz, she threw a fit: “I don’t work that way! I’m used to writing three to four major tests. I don’t like group work! I have no time for assignments!”

Citing advantages from more assignments than exams, I asked her to give our class a chance. But I also suggested another class for the same course with more exams than assignments. She happily switched to it with my blessings.

I continued to facilitate research projects, group assignments, reflective journals, field trip notes, analytical reports, and experiential activities, as well as online and in-class discussions – for marks. But I’ve also reflected on my reasons for favouring skills-building tasks over brow-mopping exams.

All things being equal, my first reason is not willing to sacrifice six out of forty-two valuable hours that can be used for learning, via individual and group work for the same marks.

After that, my second reason is not wanting to create anxiety in a cramming culture. Imagine a student’s stress from two exams in each course every single semester. In contrast, assignments — not sweatshops — come with appropriate due dates, as well as ongoing guidance and feedback from teachers.

My next reason is objecting to unequal power dynamics in exams when I’m the only person with all the correct answers. Until I’m enlightened by how this inequality supports learning, students and I could collaborate in discussions, debates, and problem-solving exercises.

To complement the previous argument, my fourth reason is being interested in diverse individual (competitive) and group (collaborative) activities for marks; they include brainstorming, presentations, role-play, interpretive summaries, informed opinions, and critical responses – tasks that invite self-reflection and constructive feedback from peers and teachers – instead of major exams from cramming that students easily forget.

My final reason is disliking how exams isolate students from each other and from their teachers. Not only do students write exams apart from one another even in the same room, often, when they get their midterm exams back, there’s hardly any constructive feedback, especially when exams use quantitative questions like true-false or multiple choices. As well, many colleges have a policy of not handing back final exams but store them as institutional property. Therefore, long exams each semester may in fact keep students in silos with diminishing returns.

While supporting alternatives to exams, I do recognize what some colleagues call “well designed assessment and evaluation tools”, with healthy varieties of test questions for students across different contexts. A blend of answer-selection questions (like multiple choices) and answer-generating ones (like short paragraphs) is a balanced approach, but equally important is personalized feedback to students.

Knowing AI’s lightning speed at grading quantitative answers, I’m more interested in how algorithms provide feedback and instructions, including critique, support, guidance, and advice to individual students.

Lastly, over the past few years, college administration’s been asking teachers if they’re having final exams in their courses, as if it’s a choice! But this shift could mean an openness to teaching and learning styles outside traditional testing. If so, like-minded colleagues and I will strengthen our advocacy for change. After all, in my own classes, many students have written no exams except a midterm quiz. But they’ve achieved better marks through active involvement with individual and group learning experiences.

by Mina Wong

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