November 18, 2014

With the possible exception of presentations, there are few things that happen in a student’s academic career that stress them out more than final exams. One source of frustration for both students and faculty alike is when faculty believe an exam has been written fairly and yet students have done poorly. One thing to ensure that this does not happen is to reflect on your evaluation style and make sure that it is directly reflected in your teaching style. What you need to ask yourself is: have you taught your students to think in the same way that you plan to test them?

There are many types of exam questions which evaluate different things. For example, recall questions (often found in the form of multiple choice, true/false or definition questions) are mainly designed to evaluate students’ ability to memorize information. Critical analysis and synthesis questions (often found in the form of short / long answer, case study or interpretation questions) are mainly designed to evaluate students’ ability to synthesize different concepts and information learned in the course to interpret new information, a new concept or a new figure, or to answer a question by synthesizing information from different chapters or blocks of information learned in the course.  

When designing your examinations, consider your learning outcomes and goals and make sure that your exam questions reflect these. The following are five strategies to ensure that both you and your students are on the same exam page.

1. Make sure your students understand what you’re asking them to do.

When I first started teaching, I realized that one of the ways that my students and I were talking past each other was in the terminology I used on exams, and that they were unsure of what I was really asking for in exam questions. Choose your action verbs carefully and make sure that students know what you are truly asking them to do. Some of the common terms typically used include: explain, discuss, list, differentiate, define, compare and contrast. I use examples of these types of action words in class, and give them tips as to what I am looking for them to include in their answers.

2. Assume your students don’t inherently know how to answer all types of questions.

Don’t assume your students will be able to make the leap from simple questions to complex synthesis questions; they need to be exposed to this kind of thinking first (and knowing how to approach these questions will make them perform much better on the evaluation). In addition to doing examples in class, you can introduce hybrid questions, which are especially appropriate for quizzes and midterms. A hybrid between recall and critical analysis or synthesis questions can be a midterm question with multiple parts / questions in which the student knows what is being asked for each question and these can be answered individually or in parts. These questions enable higher level thinking, but students are not overwhelmed with a broader, more complex question that is worth more. The best questions are those that require higher-level thinking, critical analysis and synthesis.  

3. Provide examples.

This one is easy to do, especially if you have taught your course before; make sample exams or sample questions available to students. These can be from the previous year’s exam, and if you prefer, you don’t even have to give out the entire exam, but just a few sample questions for each type of question. The objective here is to provide questions that are indicative of those that will be found on the exam such that the students will have an understanding (and preparation!) for the types of questions that will be asked.

4. Provide consistency.

Use active learning activities in the classroom to prepare students for the types of questions you will ask on the exam. If you plan to test for critical analysis and synthesis skills on the exam, students should already know what this means and what this entails. One way to prepare students for this type of written evaluation is through non-graded homework assignments and in-class activities. Here, students can be asked to synthesize what they have learned by pairing up and teaching each other a concept, or to critically analyze a case study, or to illustrate a particular process on the board. If you ask the students memorization questions in their lab assignments or in class, they will assume that that is what you will be assessing in their midterms and exams, so consistency is key.

5. Modify your examination strategies accordingly.

Finally, my personal preference is to include multiple types of assessment (that address varying levels of understanding and critical thinking skills) in the lower-class divisions, where students are introduced to synthesis and critical analysis questions, but can also excel at the review and recall questions which they are likely more used to from high school. In the upper divisions, my reliance on recall and review questions is much lower as oftentimes this information inherently must be learned and included to fully answer synthesis and critical analysis questions.

And Finally, Start Now!

Even if you haven’t been doing this throughout the term, it’s not too late to start giving students sample questions and setting aside just 5 minutes in class to critically analyze or synthesize a concept, dataset or problem. For example, you could begin by describing a real world phenomenon or recent event with the intention of getting students to explain what happened and how or why. Students can discuss in pairs, answer mini-questions posed to the entire class, or volunteer to draw a figure on the board. Seeing the process of another student working through the problem inherently teaches students how to work their way through something they may not initially have thought they knew the answer to.

Related Resources:

Learning Goals              

Active Learning             

Summative Evaluations