In my previous blog posting, I talked about the creation of faculty learning communities as a way to generate conversation about various aspects of teaching/learning/education.   At that time, I brought up one of my favorite topics.   If you have read this blog for long, you are aware that I am a firm believer that the way you test will strongly influence the way your students learn.   If you want to create a different class environment, you need to test differently.

Therefore, in discussing faculty learning communities, I strongly feel that every aspect of testing should be a topic of serious conversation by people who want to become better teachers.

So, today, I have a question for you.   I would bet it is a question that you have never been asked before no matter how long you have taught.   And, I would argue that it is a question we should be asking all the time.   In fact, I think we should have a national contest built around this one question.   I believe the answers might well improve college education (which is not a small statement to make).

Here’s the question.   Think before you answer. 

Whether you teach history, political science, math, accounting, or the like, in your testing during the past semester (or academic year), what was the very best question you asked your class on a test?   If testing matters so much, then we should all have some really good questions that we are especially proud of having written.   Why did you feel that particular question was so good?

Excellent test questions set the tone for your class:   this is what I consider important, this is the way I want you to learn, this is the kind of thinking you should be doing, this is what I want from you rather than memorization.   Students need guidance – nothing guides them quite like what they believe will be on the tests.

Okay, so what was my best question for the past semester?   As most readers of this blog probably know, I teach accounting at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond.    We have very bright students who are willing to do as much or as little as you ask of them.   It is all about asking.   In testing, I want them to know that I am going to ask them for a lot of serious thinking.

One of my courses is Intermediate Accounting II.   Most of my students believe that accounting is basically the memorization of set rules that they must apply to particular situations.   Many of them are left-brained and love the comfort of those rules.   They are not necessarily happy that I want them to think outside of the box.

However, my experience has been that, in real life, accountants are thrown into odd situations almost every day and must use all of their brain cells to figure out what is going on so that they can determine what response is needed.  

You can learn the rules for being a medical doctor but the actual application is much more stressful (and interesting).

On my first test this past semester, I wanted to break the students away from the memorization of rules.   So, when they opened the test, they discovered that they had an accounting client on the planet Kryptoplasm.   The businesses on that planet use a unique set of accounting rules (referred to as Krypto-GAAP).   I then presented a variety of situations and described the basic rules found in Krypto-GAAP.  I then asked the students to determine the impact of converting the financial statements prepared on that planet into financial statements that could be used in the US (based on US GAAP).   For each situation, they had to tell if reported net income would go up or down, whether the reported liabilities would go up or down, and so on.

The students had never seen anything like this which is what I wanted.  

What was I trying to accomplish?

--I wanted the students to read the questions carefully.   They could not anticipate the accounting rules on the other planet so they had to read the words and think about what those people were doing.   I think the ability to read and think through what you are being told is vitally important in solving problems.

--I wanted to downplay the importance of memorization.   No matter what you tell a student they will believe that they can prosper by memorizing everything you have said.   I wanted no questions that simply asked them to replicate a mechanical rule.

--I wanted them to make judgments as to which rules should have been applied.   By describing the weird things that were happening on this planet, they had to step back and think about how those events should be reported.   The problem was more than just manipulating numbers.

--Despite being set on a faraway planet, I wanted the students to be placed in a real life situation.   Having a client do weird things is no stretch of the imagination.   Too many tests have nothing to do with real life and reinforce the student’s suspicions that college classes are just student exercises.

Did I like the results?

Yes, in fact, I liked this question so very well that my second test used the same format (without warning the students).

Yes, in fact, the standard joke in my classes quickly came to be “what would they do in Krypto-GAAP?” which alerted the students to the fact that accounting rules are not set in stone but simply selected at a point in time and place as the most appropriate method.

Did the test question work?   I have no hard data but I do know that I had a really good semester in Intermediate Accounting II.   My students quickly came to be open to talking about accounting in interesting and theoretical ways.   We learned the rules but we didn’t become obsessed with the rules.   I think one of the major reasons why the semester went so well was because of the message that I sent out in that first test (and then followed up on in the second test).   This question helped show the students the kind of thinking I wanted them to be able to do.   The way you test is the way they will learn.

So, what was your best question of the past semester?

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