Quick note:   If you are in need of a little inspiration as you begin a new school year, at the video link below, I tell four stories about teaching that I hope will get every teacher excited about another year in the classroom.  On good days, it is a truly marvelous and wonderful profession.  And, even on bad days, it can still be extremely rewarding.  I hope the video reminds you of that fact.

Thoughts on Testing:  I am currently writing tests for my students so testing is on my mind.  Our first examination of the semester is tomorrow.  As I enter my 48th year in the classroom, I am convinced that the writing and grading of tests is a true pain in the neck.  In fact, testing stopped being fun for me while Richard Nixon was president of the United States.

However, I am even more certain that testing can be (and should be) an extremely positive influence on student learning.  For that reason, I still invest an enormous amount of time in thinking and constructing examinations.  

In one of the first speeches I ever delivered about teaching years ago, I made the observation that,

                   “The way you test is the way your students will learn.” 

If you test students on memorization, they will work diligently to memorize every word you utter no matter how you teach them.  However, if you test their critical thinking skills, your students will quickly realize that memorization is not helpful and begin to focus their attention on critical thinking. 

If that is true (and I believe it is), then you cannot simply rely on a publisher’s test bank for your test questions.  For years, I have argued vehemently against the use of test banks.  I think they have done more harm to college learning than virtually anything else I know.  

Consequently, I want to provide you with three testing tips from my own experience as a teacher.   All of them have helped me over the years in the teaching of my students.  Perhaps, you will find one or two that are helpful to you. 

(1) – Notes – I always allow my students to bring two sheets of notes to every test.  They have to be hand-written because I want each student to do their own thinking about what is important, what material I am likely to cover and what questions I might ask.  I believe students need to learn to assess the relative importance of what we discuss in class.  By limiting the quantity of notes, students cannot simply judge all the material as equally important and just write down everything.  They must decide what is essential.

For me, that assessment is helpful for student learning.  However, that is not the primary reason for allowing notes.  I let students bring in notes because it sends a clear message (to the students AND to me) that I am not going to test them on memorization.  How can I test memorization if they have notes?  This puts an obvious burden on me to come up with reasonable questions that go beyond memorization.  I have often said that I never learned how to write good test questions until I began to allow students to have notes.  That step forced me to come up with better questions, ones requiring student understanding that went deeper than memorization.  When I look back on my evolution as a teacher, this decision to allow notes was a hugely important step.  Student learning improved because I began to challenge them with better questions. 

Try it once – see if it works for you.

(2) – Testing Circle – Every semester, during the last class before our first test, I spend 5 minutes talking with my students about my “testing circle.”  I draw a big circle on the board and tell them, “This represents everything we have discussed this semester to date.  I keep good records.  I know the topics our class has examined.  I will write about 1/3 of the test questions directly from this material because it covers what we talked about in class.  I want to see if you were here and awake, that you paid attention and understood.   If you get these questions correct, then you must have followed the daily conversation with a basic degree of understanding.  That strikes me as approaching average work which is evidence that you are getting close to a C.”

I then draw an X roughly 3 inches outside of the circle and explain, “This X represents test questions that are connected to our class coverage but go beyond what we analyzed in class.  I want to see if you can take your class knowledge and extend it to solve something new, something a bit more complex.  It will take analysis and thinking but you can do it.  If you understand the class material well enough, you can use that fundamental knowledge to figure out legitimate answers for this second group of questions.  To me, success at this level starts to look like Good work and begins to show me that you might deserve a B (or, at least, you are heading that way).  It indicates that you can make use of your knowledge and that is important to me.”

I then draw an X roughly 12 inches outside the circle.  “This final X again represents test questions that are connected to our class coverage, but they are more complex.  They will require an excellent understanding and thinking to determine the key elements of that connection so that you can come up with a solution.  I do not know that anyone can get them all correct, but I want to see if you can solve some of these questions because that starts to feel like Excellent and Outstanding work.  That level of understanding begins to show me that you are capable of earning an A.  Virtually every practice question I have sent to you by email this semester was either a B level or an A level question.  I took what we had done in class and tried to show you how that basic knowledge could be extended to solve more complicated issues.”

Once again, I am stressing that I have little interest in memorization.  I am also doing something that I am not sure enough teachers do.  I am showing the students visually what critical thinking is and why it is important.  We talk a lot about critical thinking in education but few students seem to have any clue what it is and why it is important.  That to me is a serious weakness of much of college education.  We say we are doing it but we do not even explain what it is.  For me, critical thinking is developing a level of understanding that is so solid that the student can use it as the foundation to solve questions and issues that are ever more complicated.  

I often tell my students that the course will never be finished until they can solve all the possible problems based on their own knowledge and, therefore, have no further need of me. 

(3) - Answer Sheets – For me, every test has two purposes:  (1) to help assess the students’ knowledge for grading purposes and (2) to improve the students’ understanding so they will do better in coming classes and on the next examination.   I believe students should show improvement on every subsequent examination. 

Consequently, I email my students an answer sheet within a few hours of every exam.   Not surprisingly, that is the time they are most interested in (a) the knowledge they needed to know and (b) how I wanted them to attack and answer each question.   Students will often pour over answer sheets with more intensity than they ever invest in the class.  They focus their attention like a laser on any questions they miss.  For me, that has always seemed like the perfect moment for improving student knowledge and that is what an answer sheet encourages.  I often have more interesting conversations about the answer sheets than I do about class material.  

For each test, I type up an answer sheet that starts with, “Here is how I would have looked at each question.  Here is how I would have started building an answer.   Here is the answer that I hope you were able to derive.”   No matter how complicated the question, I want the answers to seem logical and sequential.  Education is often the taking of a seemingly random and confused bunch of information and organizing it into knowledge that is logical and sequential.

Of course, there is a troubling disadvantage with distributing answer sheets—you cannot reuse test questions semester after semester.  The questions and answers are “out there” in the student world.   I know this is probably sacrilegious to say but I think teachers should write new questions for each semester.  The old questions become stale and dated.  New questions help keep you focused on what you want your students to know.  Like exercise, the writing of test questions is not fun but it is good for you.     

Answer sheets can help the students.   Again, try it once and see if it works.

Fourth Tip:   And, here is a fourth tip absolutely free of charge.  Send the answer sheets you use one semester to your students the next semester.  Once again, that will help them see that you are not asking for any memorization.  The answer sheets will show them what you mean when you say,  "I want to see if you can take your class knowledge and extend it to solve something new, something a bit more complex."  Students often believe a teacher is bluffing until they see evidence.   At that point, they will forget about memorization and start looking for ways to use the knowledge they have attained.

None of these ideas is perfect.  I can see potential flaws easily enough.  Nevertheless, in my own personal experience, they have each helped my students develop stronger and deeper learning.  If you are looking to experiment in your teaching, testing is an excellent place to start.  I think you will find opportunities for quick improvement.

When done well, your questions and answers can have a positive effect on the knowledge and understanding of your students.  Better testing can make for better learning.    

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