In Defence of Exams

There was a picture in the student newspaper when I was at the University of Waterloo that I wish I’d kept.  If you went there, you’ll remember the desks set up in the PAC.  The picture was taken from the upper level showing hundreds? of people writing exams and the caption was “At Waterloo, you’re a somebody”.  Don’t ask me why I remember that image from so long ago but it’s stuck with me.

As a first year teacher, there came a time when I had to create an exam.  They had to be drafted and then sent to the office so that they could all be formatted in a consistent manner, duplicated, locked in the vault until exam time.  Then, the seal (well actually a sheet of paper wrapped around them with the number of copies therein) was broken and it was distributed to the students.

For my first couple of years (probation, don’t you know…), I followed the format of my predecessor.  I’m sure that we’ve all written exams like this – multiple choice, definitions, problems, and then write three programs.  All of this was to be done in the two hour time slot allotted to the exam.  Students were not allowed to finish early or I guess more appropriately put, not allowed to leave the gym until 90 minutes had passed.  This kept them in place, I guess, but more importantly kept the noise level down.  The exams were supervised by we teachers although we weren’t allowed to supervise our own.  We were allowed to come in about 45 minutes into the exam to answer any questions that had arisen.  I do have a remembrance of supervising a History exam where a student asked me “How would you answer this question?”  My answer – “incorrectly”.

There were oddities in the scheduling of the exams.  English teachers always had their exams at the front of the exam schedule and those of us with “niche” subject areas at the end.  The logic was that the English teacher had so many essays questions to mark and our exams were somehow easier to mark.  Then the marks had to be submitted a day or two after the exams and a final grade determined.  There was a certain percentage of the final mark that was required to be generated by the performance on the exam.

In the days preceding the exams, there was always time for review.  The most popular question “How many will be multiple choice?”  I guess they were perceived to be easier and you had a 1:4 chance of getting the right answer.  Actually, it was probably 1:3 with me because I’d always have one throw away answer, usually with a bit of humour to break the tedium of the exam.

I always found creating an exam in Computer Studies difficult.  I think that it’s because, unlike conventional wisdom, we don’t teach a second or third language for the sake of the language, we pride ourselves in teaching thinking and problem solving.

Multiple Choice Questions:  I always found students enjoyed knowing that there would be some of these on the exam.  Part of the logic is explained above but I think that, even for the unprepared, there’s some comfort in knowing that the right answer is actually there.  You just have to find it.  And, if you look around, you might see what answer your neighbour had circled.  Not that any of my students would do that.

Fill in the Blank:  These would be tough to create “The left mouse button is the one on the ____”.  I don’t recall ever creating a question like this.

Definitions:  These are straight forward memorization types of questions.  All that’s required is that you parrot back something we talked about in class.  In today’s terminology, we call these “Google-able”.  Other than knowing how to remember something, I don’t see the point.

Spot the Error and Fix It:  In this type of question, you provide a piece of code to the student with a mistake in it and ask them to identify the problem and how they would solve it.  You might throw some code that does weird things like divide by zero or do a variable mismatch type.  I actually like this type of program as it shows that they understand at least parts of the language and it addresses problem solving.  It is a better test, for example, to know if they know the difference between an integer or a floating point variable than to ask for a definition.  Another benefit was that I didn’t have to deal with the many permutations of spelling the word “integer”.

Trace the Program:  For me, this was probably the best type of question.  I would provide a complete program and ask the students to generate the output.  You could test their ability to understand formatting, logic, calculations, logic, sequencing, repetition, and all the other good things that we do in Computer Studies.

Write a Program:  I guess one of the biggest expectation from any Computer Studies class is the ability to write a program.  That’s why they take the course, right?  But writing a program under a time constraint and stress of an exam is far removed from the rest of the course activity.  Normally, students work in groups to solve problems; they test their logic and get feedback from successful tries on the computer; and can see and get immediate feedback on how well they, or their group, is doing to solve the problem.  In an exam setting, it’s perform and be right about it.  The funniest anecdote that I have about this goes back to a Grade 12 class where we had talked about reusable code and the importance of building a library that could be used in a program rather than coding from scratch every time.  I had a student include a routine that was backed up on computer somewhere….  Nice try

I’ll admit; it’s frustrating to create the perfect exam.  It’s increasingly bizarre when we talk about differentiated instruction, different learning styles, “not the same way, not the same day” and yet expect that, for two hours at the end of January we can test all the good things that we claim to do in Computer Studies for every student, all at the same time, in the quiet of an exam room.

Once I had my permanent contract, I recall going to a meeting at the board office with my vice-principal and we were talking about the shortcomings of exams in Computer Studies.  He shared some of his frustrations too – it’s no walk in a park for the administration either.  They have to deal with claims of cheating, forged sick notes, real sick notes, claims for leniency, complaints about unfair exam questions (We didn’t even take this!)

He then asked the million dollar question “Why do you have an exam then?”
My answer – “School policy”.
His response – “Show me where policy states that”.
Me – blank look.

That started a complete change in my outlook.  Why indeed?  I’d written (and marked) my last exam. The down side was that I had more exams to supervise because I didn’t have any marking but it was worth it.

Instead, I revamped the course so that there was a big problem that required solution near the end of the course.  It gave me a much better sense of satisfaction in my teaching.  Any Computer Studies teacher will tell you that you can actually see students think and problem solve as they write, test, and re-write code.  This is what the discipline is about.

In Ontario, over the years, policy about Assessment and Evaluation has changed and I think for the best for students and learning.  We’ve recognized and got a great deal better about recognizing how to do assessments.  While there’s no EQAO assessment in Computer Studies, that end of the semester exam sure was certainly high stakes for my students.

So, to wrap up this rant – in Computer Studies, I have no defence for exams.  There are much better ways to assess and evaluate the expectations from the course.

 

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4 thoughts on “In Defence of Exams

  1. Jen Ross Holton says:

    I teach secondary science in Ontario, and my struggle with moving away from a final exam (which I would love to do!) is that each unit in the courses are largely discrete and little to no content or skills overlap from unit to unit. I have wracked my brain and consulted my colleagues in an effort to try to create a final performance task that adequately evaluates students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills in all units. We have been unsuccessful, hence the final exam persists. Any thoughts or advice on this is more than welcome!

    Like

  2. MBrighton says:

    Thumbs up Doug – when teaching CS, I did similar questions on an exam. All the exam did was weed out those who copied code from classmates.

    Like

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