The Test of Time

I am ambivalent about tests. Not opposed to them; I think tests have their place in an educator’s tool kit, along with many other forms of assessment. However a test, as traditionally defined, does not evaluate what students know so much as what students remember. There are exceptions. Math tests to me are a valid way of seeing if students can solve a specific problem, although I also think application of math to real world problems is important. But I am not a math teacher. I teach writing, ethics, literature, and critical thinking. And today, as I look around at my critical thinking students writing a test, I am reflecting on why I chose this method of assessment, why it is valid, and whether there is another, better way of assessing student understanding of the core concepts.

First…let’s be honest…tests are a practical, efficient use of class time. The simpler the test (multiple choice, for example), the quicker it is to mark. At St. Lawrence College, we are encouraged to use different types of assessment, so there are multiple choice questions -10 of them – on the test I am giving today. But I don’t think questions like that really assess what a student has learned,or how well they have learned it, so I prefer other types of questions.

The rest of my test today is short answer/ short essay where students have to apply what they have learned to a scenario or extract relevant concepts from a real world example. It’s the bulk of their mark. It means critical close reading (which is part of the course objectives so nice to have it built right in to the assessment), deep thinking, and logical written answers supported by logic and evidence. 

No memorization. In fact to avoid having students memorize definitions they will regurgitate and later forget, I instead encouraged students to bring in a single page handwritten memory aide with whatever they wanted from course notes and class discussions written on it. A more astute student knew exactly what I was up to: “So once we have handwritten all that, we probably won’t need the sheet any more…” Right! Having that sheet though cuts through the stress that causes so many students to panic and freeze, so I find having it gives students peace of mind, and gives them a clearer head to demonstrate a true understanding of the course material. Plus, yes, creating the memory aide did sort of force them to study too.

My expectations for the short answer are that students use the vocabulary, the concepts. That the apply their learning and demonstrate their level of mastery. Some students hate my tests, others find them difficult, many would prefer a more structured format. I remember tests like that: When in doubt, choose C, we would say. 50% chance of being right, we would joke. My aha moment came as a history student writing my first university exam ever. Used to high school exam questions that wanted memorization of dates and battles and who was in charge, I had studied hard. My professor…a wonderful man…threw me into a tailspin when, instead of any question like that, he asked us to summarize three historical events of the period and then decide which one of them could be considered a watershed moment in history. And why. With evidence and examples. Once I calmed the initial wave of panic, I realized I not only could answer the question, but that I had a definitive opinion about it. That changed my whole perspective of what it is to be a learner. And what it means to be a teacher.

Could I have done today’s critical thinking assessment differently? Yes. A take home test, for example. A paper. An in class collaborative project. But I already have those things built into my curriculum. A test is another tool for assessment. I don’t have any tests in my literature or communications classes. But for now, for this particular class, it works.