Monday, June 28, 2010

A Grating Exam

Anytime a semester ends, there are always multiple conversations about final examinations.  And final exams come in all sizes and shapes.  Not surprising, faculty focus their attention on the quality of the student work be it in response to short or multiple choice questions or in response to essay or term paper assignments.  Students tend to talk about whether an exam was “fair”: in other words did it cover the materials that the students were responsible for.  After that, the students tend to focus on whether the exam was clear or confusing and whether it was easy or hard.  Certainly there are extremes in all these categories but for the most part, faculty view the students’ work to be reasonable and responsible and students view the examination to also be reasonable and responsible.

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a friend who is also dean of a professional school.  Quickly the conversation evolved into a discussion of final examinations.  But this conversation was very different.  Normally as noted above, discussions regarding a final examination tend to focus more on the quality of the students work, and the fairness of the exam.  But this dean was focused not just on fairness but rather on exam appropriateness.  The dean’s point was that a faculty member had given an “F” exam, one which did not in any way cover the key points of the course.  On this exam, according to the dean, the student could receive a 100% and you would still not have any concrete notion as to whether the student did or did not understand the critical course material or did or did not achieve the course learning goals.

In higher education, for the most part, exam development is the purview of the faculty member teaching the course.  Exams are sometimes (but only sometimes) included in the teaching portfolios presented by candidates for reappointment, tenure, and promotion.  Exams are sometimes created by groups of faculty where there are multiple sections of a course and a common final exam.  But these examples account for a minority of all the exams given.  Mostly likely the faculty member develops, administers, and grades the exam.  Overall this system works well, but we also know for certain that it doesn’t work perfectly.  And just as there are brilliant exams developed on a regular basis, there are also very flawed exams developed as well.

Outcomes assessment and using exams in part to determine whether learning goals have been accomplished should help minimize the flawed exam problem.  But this is not enough.  Many department chairs and deans review grade rosters on a regular basis.  If there is something out of the ordinary (grades seem extraordinarily high or low), the department chair typically just asks the faculty member.  Chairs and deans need to follow the same procedures with final exams (and perhaps exams in general).  We all recognize that chair and faculty classroom observations are a tried and true method of enhancing a faculty member‘s teaching excellence.  The same type of support can also be invaluable in facilitating the most meaningful examinations possible.  All of us want more “A” students; we should also make sure there are “A” examinations for our students.

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