Exams are just a way to assign grades right? Maybe, but effective assessment can provide instructors with valuable feedback about student learning and provide students with valuable feedback about how well they understand the class material. In the fourth workshop of the GTC’s “Course Design” series, facilitators Amanda Schrager and Matt Dumlao wanted to explore different types of testing, Bloom's Taxonomy/different types of questions, and how often to give assessments.
High stakes and low stakes testing
Everyone is familiar with the dreaded midterm, term paper, and final, but there are actually many different ways to assess learning. In addition to the traditional high stakes assessments just mentioned, that account for large percentages of a student's grade, there are many ways to test student learning with low stakes assessment. These low stakes assessments account for only a small part of the overall grade (if any at all), and serve to provide feedback for students (how well do I understand the material?) and instructors (does the content and pace make sense for this set of students?) rather than simply determine overall grades. Some of our favorite low stakes assessments include clicker questions, response questions, polls, pop quizzes, and homework assignments. Can you think of a good way to include (or improve upon) low stakes assessment in your classroom?
Giving tests is more than just asking random questions about the course material. Different types of questions assess learning differently. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom first proposed a classification of learning objectives now known as Bloom's taxonomy. The ideas have been modified since their introduction, but at the core is a pyramid categorizing different types of questions.
In order to give effective assessments, think about your learning goals and what type of information you are trying to get across to your students. For example, if you are teaching a beginning Spanish class, you probably shouldn’t be asking your students to compose essays or respond to complex questions. In an introductory class, you're most likely trying to convey the basics of the subject and get your student familiar with the vocabulary of the field. Keep to the bottom of the pyramid for these classes, you want to assess knowledge and comprehension of the basics. Even your best students will likely struggle answering analysis questions. Equally, if you are teaching a specialized upper division class on plant molecular biology, your students should be coming to class with a strong base of general biology, genetics, etc, allowing you to teach more difficult concepts and ask students to think critically and address question at the application level and above. Remember, questions from the top and bottom aren't better or worse than those from the other half… write a test that aligns with your learning goals and assesses at a level appropriate for the course. Furthermore, the type of test (e.g., scantron-based multiple choice, short essay, etc.) might assess different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy more or less effectively. Multiple-choice tests are excellent for knowledge and comprehension level questions, but higher order cognitive skills may not be tested adequately.
Time. What's it worth?
Giving five midterms in a 10-week quarter is a great idea right? What about a single midterm for an 18-week semester? Timing of low and high stakes assessments can be just as important as the questions you ask. Over testing can be overwhelming your students and TAs/graders. You certainly aren't going to create a positive environment for learning if your students are constantly stressed about exams and your TAs are grumpy from all the extra grading. On the other hand, using just one or two high stakes assessments will make learning from mistakes nearly impossible for the students and quite difficult for them to figure out how much of the course content they truly understand. Finding the right balance of high and low stakes assessments can provide your students with the feedback they need and a fair determination of overall grade without causing your graders to revolt. How often do you assess your students? Do you include a mix of low and high stakes assessment?
In preparation for this workshop, Amanda and Matt came across several great resources they’d like to share:
1. Wikipedia.org has a great entry on Bloom’s taxonomy. (We know, citing Wikipedia is a faux pas, but hey, it’s informative.)
2. In addition to providing the beautiful pyramid image for the blog post, this website also has a great section on Bloom’s taxonomy.
3. There are also many great journal articles on teaching. Here are two of their favorites:
Allen, D., and Tanner, K. (2002). Approaches to Cell Biology Teaching: Questions about Questions. Cell Biology Education 1, 63-67.
Crowe, A., Dirks, C., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2008). Biology in Bloom: Implementing Bloom's Taxonomy to Enhance Student Learning in Biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education 7, 368-381.
(Posted by Amanda Schrager and Matt Dumlao)