Getting By On Flash Cards, or Why I Stopped Giving Exams

I met with a student over the summer, as she was having trouble making the grade she needed on her Praxis exam.  She had taken it several times already and missed by just a few points each time.  When we were talking about the test, she started talking about all of the preparation she had been doing.  Another professor had loaned her an anthology for a class she didn’t take, and she had gone through the table of contents and biographical/background information and made flash cards.  She had looked at a sample test and made flash cards of any terms/ideas she wasn’t familiar with.  She had even ordered some pre-made flash cards from ETS to see if that would help.

She was clearly working hard, but there’s a trend running through her preparation.  After she laid out all of her preparation (which also included a very well-organized notebook that laid out the different sections of the test), she said, “I’ve always gotten through school with flash cards, and they’re not working now.”  I realized then that we had failed her. Continue reading


A Bit More on Testing

I wrote about testing a couple of weeks ago, but I had another conversation about it this past week, so I wanted to say one more thing.  I was having a review session with students, and they asked me if I would count off for spelling an author’s name incorrectly.  They actually asked if I would count off if they had one letter wrong.  I assured them I wouldn’t, that I was more interested in their ideas than in having them memorize the spelling of authors’ names.

The way I view testing (or grades, in general) is that we put point values on what we value.  That’s at least what we convey to the students.  If we mark off for spelling, then we tell them that spelling is what matters to us.  If I mark off for ideas that aren’t developed, then I convey that ideas are what matters.

Note that that might change from one class to another.  I care more about such details in my freshman classes where I’m trying to get them to learn the basics (thesis, evidence, structure) than I am trying to teach them ideas about literature (though those are there, of course).  When it comes to majors, though, I’m not sure why I would care that they can spell every author’s name correctly.  If they don’t understand the ideas we’ve been discussing, correct spelling won’t get them very far.  For the record, almost all of them spelled almost every author’s name correctly.

What We Test For

I gave an exam this past week, not an extraordinary event for most of us, of course.  The discussions I have leading up to the exam are always interesting, though.  Mostly, the students ask about the format of the test, at least on the first one.  They are as concerned with the types of questions as they are with the actual content of those questions.  They’re trying to understand how I’m going to try to get them to convey what they know, which makes sense.

Whenever I talk about exams with students who haven’t taken one from me before, I always tell the same story.  I was teaching a sophomore-level literature survey course more than a decade ago now.  One student, whom I had taught in three of her first four semesters, so we knew each other well, came up to me after I had given the exams back.  She said, “Dr. Brown, I don’t mean to offend you”–which means she’s about to offend me, of course–“but your exams are easy.”  I replied, “Leslie, that’s because you do the reading, come to class, participate in class, and take good notes.”  She replied, “Oh,” as if she had never thought about that connection before.

That is how the connection should work, though, isn’t it?  If students are doing the work we ask of them, and they are able to do that work to the level we expect, then they should do well on our exams.  This has always seemed rather obvious to me.  For students who do the work, my exams should be easy.  However, I have found that when I tell this story, students are still surprised by that connection.

When we talk about exams, what I learn is that there are professors for whom exams do not work like this.  Instead, exams seem to be a way for the professors to show how smart they are, as they put questions on the test that are designed to trick the students, as if someone with twenty years of experience cannot outsmart someone with two.  Other professors use tests as a way to punish those who are not reading the textbook, despite the fact that those professors don’t use the textbook in class in any meaningful way.

And then there are the professors who use tests simply to establish a reputation as being hard.  Note that those professors are usually not described as challenging, which is different.  Hard professors are those where students spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for exams or working on assignments that have little application to the class itself.  They memorize facts they will promptly forget because the professor wants them to do know every single detail, despite the fact that the professors themselves have to look up most of those details whenever they prepare to teach.  Professors who are challenging demand a high level of performance from the students, but also work hard themselves to prepare students for that level.  Both classes require a good deal of work, but the second one gives a real reward.

It seems obvious that exams should cover what the focus of the class has been to that point.  If students spend a good deal of time discussing various ideas in class, then those ideas should form the core of the exam.  If it is a lecture class where students are expected to write down an inordinate amount of facts (like a science class, for example), then that’s what the test should cover.  I tell my students that they should not be surprised by what shows up on one of my exams.  They might not know every question or quotation, but they should at least see it and think, “Yeah, that makes sense.”  If not, then the problem is with me, not with them.

The purpose of an exam should simply be to judge whether or not students are learning the material the professor values.  That material should form the basis of the course.  Thus, the two should go together clearly.  If that means that my exams are easy, so be it.  What matters to me is that students are learning what I hope for them to learn.