Exams are nerve-wracking! As some of the recent conversations on our blog address, they can be nerve-wracking for the instructor as well as the students. We ask ourselves, have my students learned anything? Have I taught them well? If they do badly, does it mean they just don’t care, or that I’ve botched the semester? Thankfully, I just had a fairly positive experience giving a midterm, and wanted to share a little bit about the process.
As with many courses, the goals for my public policy course are for students to develop both their concrete knowledge and their critical thinking. While my course is officially a “lecture,” in order to tend to both of my goals, I offset my presentations with classroom discussions and small group activities.
In designing the syllabus, I also aimed to balance my evaluation strategies. I have assigned a research paper and a more imaginative paper, a final presentation, and weekly short assignments, and I have weighted their participation and attendance fairly heavily in the rubric.
I tend to be skeptical about the usefulness of exams in the social sciences, but I did want to create an imperative for my students to commit certain information to memory. I arranged the semester so that we’d have covered the majority of the cold, hard facts and foundational concepts by mid-semester. This way, I could build towards a midterm exam, which would encourage students to study the material closely. I was clear with my students that the goal of this test was to encourage them to memorize material that would be useful in the future, and that we wouldn’t be having a final exam.
Despite lectures and discussions on the exam topics, a midterm guide, playful review (we played Jeopardy – one of my favorite ways to get a group riled up about facts), and my assurance that the midterm was worth only 15% of their semester grade, I still arrived at the classroom on test day to find some of my students nearly in tears! They told me they were feeling terribly nervous, some of them said they just hate tests, some said they didn’t think they’d do well. I repeated my assurances about the moderate stakes, about how I’d curve the exam, about how the rest of the work they’d do in the semester would be just as – if not more – important.
I don’t think anxiety is particularly conducive to learning, so it pained me that they were feeling this afraid – but I was glad to be able to hand them the test that I did. There were three sections: a set of questions based on an in-test reading, a short essay question that would be graded on the number of correct statements they made (no points off for incorrect statements), and 5 short-answer questions. For the short answer section, I wrote 10 questions, from which they could choose half to answer. I thought this was fair and flexible – if they studied and/or paid close attention in class, at least 5 of the 10 questions should have looked familiar. I didn’t want to “stump” anyone, particularly since my goal for this exam was for them to really engage with the material such that some of it would “stick.”
When I graded the exams, there was a reasonable distribution from C- to A+ (with extra credit), on which I created a bit of a curve, as I said I would. When I encountered a question that everyone had trouble with, I was generous with grading and explained that in our review. Not many students lost more than a couple of points in the short answer section, and for a few of them, this was because they only answered 4 questions. I have to admit I was relieved to see that they had acquired some concrete knowledge! In general, I felt this was a success.
As of now, I would definitely use this format again for a social science exam. I really liked that was able to offer them a lot of choice and flexibility among a set of appropriately challenging questions. I hoped that the 5-out-of-10 aspect served as a bit of a “release valve” for the sheer terror of sitting for an exam, and allowed them to answer the questions they felt MOST confident about. As an instructor, it was also great to see which questions most people chose and what they felt comfortable with. At the end of the semester, I’ll definitely ask my students for anonymous feedback on the exam and other assignments, and gauge my future actions based on their responses, as well.