Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How to Make a Better Exam

Our divisions heads have asked us as departments to discuss our semester and final exams with the goals of ensuring that they are truly testing the students on what we hope they learned and that they are worthy of their 20% weight into the semester grade. Our exams are two hours long, and we have the option of using the laptops or not -- although Internet access is not available in our testing site.

While I know there will be many thoughts out there about the worth of such exams and whether they should have such weight, that is not something our school is open to pursuing right now. Instead, I would love to know the BEST exam or part of an exam you ever gave. Also, what have you done to have your exam be skill-centered rather than content-centered? Maybe between us all, we can create the perfect exam that is worthwhile and challenging for whatever school, like mine, is committed to having exams.

I'll start: a colleague and I crafted a section on the British Literature exam where the students wrote about what they learned from their classmates' wiki postings on the novel Regeneration. I thought it was so effective because it forced them to read new ideas and to collaborate. They got to pick any two of the wiki entries to read and learn, so they had choice, but whatever they chose, they were validating their classmates' work and learning more about the novel.


  1. This is tough Susanne. It may be best if I talk with you in person?I was asked the same thing but I had a different interpretation of the discussion. Perhaps b/c it is a different subject area with different issues? Our problem is that some tests were very short and others long. Some comprehensive; others not. Some had100s handed out with ease; others with few A's.

    I try to blend skills and content. My AP test should prep them for the real deal in May and I design it to model that test. Doing it any other way would not prep them. My Topics course is more research/discussion oriented and that test is designed with that in mind. They use their laptops. For 9th bio- skills and content combined. Content to prepare them for what they should know based on the objectives from the curriculum map and for foundations for AP. Skills usually meaning test-taking skills, analysis, critcal thinking.

    It is an interesting point of discussion. A bit tricky. Is there a PERFECT exam? Can one person's best exam be seen as a not so great exam due to different perspectives?

  2. Deb,
    I think you are right that our subject areas had different issues. Our students who finished too early often were not taking the skill part of the exam seriously enough ... they did not take the time we allotted to work on their writing, for example. But your point about the best single exam is a good one to think about. In the end, an exam is good because it reflects the teaching and learning that happened. What makes it great from there can vary.

  3. My perspective, at the College level, may be a bit different (it is not an explicit part of our curriculum to teach to a capstone exam), but the drive for authentic and educative assessment is the same. This idea of an integrated and authentic assessment is critical to our curriculum across the disciplines. As a result, most of our capstone assessments are project-based rather than in class exams. My personal favorite is to engage students in the co-creation of the project...i.e. what project / exam question do *you* think would be most appropriate for this class?

  4. Pavel,
    Great point -- the most memorable (and to be honest, the hardest) exam I had in college was when I had to write an exam for the class to take. The AP curriculum would limit being able to do this, as Deb points out above, but I need to remember this idea for non-AP classes. Even in a school that requires the 2 hour in-class exam, the students could participate in making it.

  5. Susanne I actually did just that for my cell unit for 9th grade. They already do a big project for 7th as you know. For 9th they needed to do a "cell refresher from the past" before we could into deeper material. I gave them the objectives from the curriculum guide and some general test guidelines like length and how to design a good question. They also had to make a key or scoring rubric- whichever, and sample answers. I got really great tests from the majority of the students and they said that they really liked doing it.

    I do agree about the project based (what I like to call "real-life" assessments) but AP makes it hard which is part of the reason why I like IB Bio better. The elective is close to project based but unfortunately they have to "sit" for the exam. They can't just turn in the project as I would like and what I feel is more realistic fo rthe course. For 9th I would love to do the same thing but am trying to figure out how to do that in two hours and to be able to grade in a day or maybe two and write comments, etc. I often feel like we are limited or boxed in as far as how we are allowed to assess students for the entire year. Personally I would want my 9th graders to do a year long research project with that as their final.