Sunday, November 9, 2008

To Test or Not to Test with High Stakes Exams

This week I have been grading all-essay midterms in one course and in another reviewing research paper outlines. I am pondering the value of high stakes exams in a freshmen/sophomore level course. Frankly, I have long been running an internal debate about the value of this kind of assessment, which some universities like the University of California require. I am hoping that you all will join me in this debate and share your ideas, alternatives, and resources.

Some pros for high stakes exams:
1. Prevent online cheating by watching tone of essay assessment versus other assignments.
2. Examine higher levels of thinking with essay exams, particularly the important skill of thinking on your feet, recalling information to make an argument, and then synthesizing all that quickly together in a cohesive way.
3. Students in my courses it seems perform better on the essay exams rather than other formats like multiple-choice and matching. Essentially, they can show off what they know.
4. Gives immediate purpose to students for practice assignments.
5. Gives students practice for exams in upper levels of college that are likely to be all essay, but also exposes students to the real world experience of composing under pressure.

Some cons for high stakes exams:
1. Students are very tempted to plagiarize or cheat to do well on the exam that is a significant portion of their grade.
2. Online courses really are open-book unless students go to a test center, so the exam may not really demonstrate more knowledge than other formative assignments.
3. All-essay exams often test writing ability more than a student’s knowledge of history, which is often reflected with some students not “writing” much and scoring poorly.
4. Online exams can be even more intimidating than face to face exams due to technology concerns, and there is no one to ask a question of once you start.
5. There are many alternatives to one or two big assessments per semester that may evaluate student knowledge of content just as effectively if not better.

With the recent push for exit high school exams and other standardized tests in our nation, many states are reporting negatively about their impact. If you have exams, here is an article with ideas for writing good exams and another about complaints by students about how exams sometimes don't relate to what they study and do in practice.

I want to hear from you! Do you use exams? Are they an effective evaluation of your learning objectives? What alternatives do you use instead of exams?

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