Ask Professor Pedagogy: Midterm Exams
Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.
Dear Professor Pedagogy,
My students just took their mid-term exams, and many students bombed it! I thought the class had been going well up to this point, so I was really surprised to see how poorly they did on this test. Obviously, the students did not understand the material as well as I thought they did. What can I do between now and the next exam to make sure the students are “getting it”?
Dear Dr. D,
Kudos to you for recognizing that your students’ poor performance on an exam is not necessarily a reflection of laziness or indifference on their part, but perhaps an indication that they are struggling to grasp the material you are teaching. Unfortunately, traditional approaches to teaching often do not attempt to assess students’ understanding until major graded assignments, which (as in your case) sometimes creates an unpleasant surprise for the instructor. The good news is that you now have an opportunity, before the semester gets away from you, to take a different approach and find out what’s really going on in your students’ heads.
When we talk about assessing student learning, most of us think about grades. But grades are really only one kind of assessment; they are part of what is known as summative assessment. Summative assessments evaluate a student’s performance (usually with a grade) at the end of a particular effort (a unit of study, or an entire course, for example). In contrast, formative assessments provide students with frequent, informal opportunities to re-think and revise. They also provide instructors with information about student learning that can be acted upon prior to future summative assessments.
It sounds to me like your students could benefit from some opportunities for formative assessment. Some of the most useful approaches to formative assessment are known as Classroom Assessment Techniques, or CATs. CATs are informal, ungraded, usually anonymous assignments that students complete in class. CATs are designed to give you particular information about how your students are thinking about the course material, and where they may be struggling. Here are a few CATs you might be interested in trying:
- The Minute Paper: The minute paper is an extremely easy CAT to implement, because it only requires a couple of minutes at the end of a class, and no special equipment is required! At the end of a class period, you simply ask your students to take out a piece of paper and write brief responses to the following questions: “What is the most important thing you learned in today’s class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?” The Minute Paper is useful because it helps you, as an instructor, to see whether and how students are retaining the main ideas you are teaching. The second question on the minute paper is especially helpful for flagging potential areas of confusion, or important gaps in the material you have presented.
- Application Cards: After your students have learned about a particularly important principle or idea in your course, you can use this CAT to see if they can transfer their learning to other contexts through application. Simply hand out index cards to your students and ask them to write down at least one possible application for what they have just learned. This CAT is easy to implement, and allows you to assess quickly how well your students can connect new learning with their prior knowledge. Bonus: this exercise also helps students to see the relevance of your course material! Here’s an example from political science: “All politics is local” is an oft-repeated saying in American political life. Imagine that you are giving advice to a presidential candidate. Suggest two practical applications of this generalization to the politics of campaigning.
- Student-Generated Test Questions: Since your students seem to be struggling with exams, this might be a great CAT for you to try. Allow students to write one or two test questions and model answers based on what they feel are the most important topics in the course thus far. (Note that students may find this very challenging at first; you may want to let them work in pairs or small groups the first time around.) The questions and answers the students turn in can give you lots of helpful information: what they think is the most memorable content from a particular unit of study; how well they understand that content; and what they see as fair and useful test questions. This CAT can be especially effective if you have the time to read through students’ questions and answers carefully, give them feedback, and discuss the process with the class. You may even want to consider using modified versions of the best questions on the upcoming exam. This exercise works best if you implement it at least three weeks before a scheduled exam so that students have time to benefit from your feedback.
Bear in mind that that no matter which CAT you choose, these exercises are most effective when you take the time to review the results, determine what they tell you about your students’ learning, and decide what changes (if any) you will make to the class. It’s also important to let your students know what you learned from the CAT, and how you will use this information in the course going forward. Without this crucial communication piece, students may begin to see the in-class activities as “busywork” that has no connection to the course as a whole.
Hopefully you’ve now got some new ideas about how to practice formative assessment in your classroom, with the ultimate goal of enhancing your students’ learning. If you’d like to see more examples of CATs or descriptions of how to use them in the classroom, check out this resource from The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University or this resource from the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State University.
(Note: The descriptions and examples of CATs in this article are drawn from Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed., by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. This resource is available for check-out from the CFT library.)
Keep your chin up!