Some Good Thinking

In writing this blog, I have occasionally shared one of my favorite quotes about teaching: "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it.“ I bring up this quote whenever I lead any discussion of teaching. Almost inevitably, someone in the audience asks how a teacher goes about thinking about teaching. It is easy to make a joke about sitting in a dark room in focused contemplation but most of us would just fall asleep.

I believe one of the best ways to think about teaching occurs when you write an examination for your students. Since I have spent most of my current weekend writing a test, the process certainly has been on my mind.

Writing a test brings up so many questions having to do with your class.
--What level of understanding is a student supposed to have developed based on how you structured the coverage?
--What are you trying to test? What are your priorities?
--How do you write questions that differentiate between students who truly understand the material and those that don’t?
--How do you write questions that stress thinking and understanding rather that just pure memorization?
--How do you write questions that are not too vague without simply lining up the information that the students need in a tidy row?
--How much information do you provide and how much should students be able to figure out on their own?
--What exactly do you expect an A student to know?
--Or, put another way, if students were in your class and did what you asked them to do each day, could they answer each of the questions that you are posing on the test? Are there any questions that go beyond what has been covered (and, if so, does the student still have a reasonable chance of arriving at a proper answer).
--Do you want students to have to rush through the exam to complete it or would you prefer for them to be able to work at a leisurely pace?
--Do you just want answers or do you want answers with explanations?
--How much time do you want them to spend reading the test. For example, a 20-page test can have great depth but does not leave much time for actually answering questions.
--Are you asking the same thing in more than one question? If so, does the redundancy add anything to the test?
--Are you leaving out material that should be tested?

I woke up at 6:15 this morning and realized that I was lying in bed trying to figure out how to structure a question about a particular piece of material. I knew that I could ask the question in such a way that it would be overly complex and no one could get it correct. Or, I could make some adjustments and it would be too easy and every student would be able to answer it. Neither of those does me much good in trying to determine a fair grade. How should I tweak that question so that I can gauge who knows and who doesn’t know?

The material I was thinking about at 6:15 was important material for my class. How could I set up the question in such a way that the students with a deep understanding would get it correct while the students with no understanding could not get it correct by guess work or luck?

Of course, that leads to the question: How well have we covered this material? What should I expect the average student to know in order to achieve the average grade?

I know a lot of teachers use test banks produced by textbook publishers or they carry over exams from year to year. I even meet teachers occasionally who seem to be afraid of writing their own test questions. I’m honestly not sure what they are afraid of. I do know that writing a good test can take an enormous amount of time. However, nothing makes you think more carefully about what you have covered and what you wanted to cover than spending a long morning writing a test that successfully allows students to demonstrate in a fair manner what they have come to understand.

Time well spent – even at 6:15 on a Sunday morning.


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