Exam questions

Analyzing the value of exams to quantify student learning

The Queen’s Exams Office scheduled 629 exams during last April’s exam season — many students also have in-class exams or cumulative projects, which can create stress for students.
The Queen’s Exams Office scheduled 629 exams during last April’s exam season — many students also have in-class exams or cumulative projects, which can create stress for students.

Queen’s biology professor Robert Montgomerie doesn’t see the value of exams.

This fall, Montgomerie is teaching a dramatically restructured BIOL 243 — data management and analysis for biologists. Unlike previous years, the course won’t have a final exam. Instead, it offers weekly assignments, quizzes and self-testing.

Exam studying may aid exam performance but, from Montgomerie’s experience, exam studying doesn’t always lead to long-term information retention.

Instead, he believes examinations are reflective of a student’s ability to memorize, and by encouraging memorization, the overarching goals of higher education can be lost.

“I had this graduate student with an amazing memory,” he said. “They could tell me anything in the textbook. They did extremely well in exams, but in some ways they weren’t that great of a graduate student, because they didn’t have to think — they just memorized everything.”

Having quizzes and assignments throughout the semester is a model that he prefers.

“[It] helps pace the learning and build on what they have learned before,” he said. “I act as a gatekeeper to keep them on schedule.”

Yet many undergraduate courses at Queen’s and elsewhere use exams as a primary method of evaluation.

“Though I’m convinced exams are not a good way of educating people, they are a good way of generating marks,” Montgomerie said.

During the April 2013 exam period, the Queen’s Exam Office scheduled 629 exams — 49 per cent of the 1,272 courses eligible to schedule exams during the period. In reality, the number of courses with exams is even higher, as this percentage accounts only for exams formally scheduled by the Exam Office.

Professors can schedule exams independently of the Exam Office if they occur before the designated exam study period. Additionally, this figure takes into account courses with minimal enrolment, such as upper-year thesis and independent study courses, which don’t have exams.

Don Klinger, a professor in the Faculty of Education who specializes in the measurement, assessment, and evaluation of education outcomes, said that when choosing evaluation methods, a number of factors should be considered. “You have to make a decision on the types of learning you want to measure,” he said. “Types of learning can include developing hands-on, theoretical or application skills.” Klinger said.

“Then, you also have to determine the breadth of learning you want to measure. In addition, the efficiency of an assessment method is always an important question to ask.”

This efficiency can sometimes come at the expense of quality.

“These things compete, sometimes you have to make some difficult decisions. It’s very difficult to write good assessments of any kind, so sometimes it depends on what’s available.”

Educators should choose from the get-go exactly what they want students to take away from their course.

There’s a belief that the multiple choice evaluation format can only demonstrate memorization, Klinger said, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

He said a proper written assessment can effectively evaluate all types of learning.

“You can write very powerful multiple choice type questions in exams, that measure complex skills and application analysis.”

It’s difficult for educators to know whether their assessment methods are actually measuring their desired learning outcomes. Klinger said often the best way to determine whether courses are measuring more complex types of learning is to diversify the type of assessment used.

“[You] then determine whether the results are consistent. That’s often one of the best ways we have to determine if what we have been doing is working,” he said.

Although including a broader level of assessment is always better, there are limitations to the number of assessments you can do in a university setting.

“The challenge we have at university, as opposed to a school system where you have 120 hours for a course, we only have 36 hours and you don’t want to use up all your teaching time to do all these assessments,” he said.

“The model we’re trying to promote people going to recently is using formative assessment practices during classes,” he added. “Whether it’s using iClickers or oral questions, being able to monitor students learning throughout lectures. The more you can do that the less importance the final exams [are].”

Final exams can create more than just assessment problems.

“Exam stress” is abundant on campus, as some students prepare to write a number of exams in a relatively short period of time. Students may have more or less time to study for exams depending on a number of factors.

Joan Brett, who manages scheduling at the Queen’s Exam Office, schedules exams so they are spread out as fairly as possible and so students don’t have conflicts.

An official exam conflict at Queen’s is having two exams at the same time or having three exams in a row within 24 hours.

In theory, this means students might have to write three or four exams in two days, but the scheduling software acts to minimize these situations. Last year, no student had to write four centrally scheduled exams in a two-day period, according to Brett.

Students don’t have a say in their exam schedule, so they’re left to do the best they can with the schedule they’ve been dealt.

Mike Condra, Director of Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS), said HCDS sees more students leading up to, and during the exam period.

“Exam stress can affect students in a number of ways. They might find themselves a little more irritable or achy. They may feel a sense of pressure during the day,” Condra said.

According to him, the stress from exams differs from the stress incurred from long-term assignments.

“Most of us expect exams at the end of the course. Sometimes assignments — because they vary so much between courses — they’re a little bit more unpredictable.”

“With assignments, for example, people often kind of over-extend themselves at the very end in order to get it done, whereas with exams, a far better approach is to make sure you’re well-rested in the last two or three days before you write.”

Condra recommends studying in shorter intervals interspersed with breaks to ensure the most efficient studying possible.

“Sometimes people tend to do interminable study periods, so study periods that go on for three or four hours, but those simply aren’t efficient. [It’s] much better to be doing shorter periods of time studying,” he said.

Studying at the right time of day can also benefit students.

“It seems to really help, believe it or not, for students to study at the same time of the day that the exam is going to happen, so if it’s going to be a mid-afternoon exam, [it’s] probably good to study in the same time period, the day before.”

While exams tend to be more difficult for some students than others, Condra said this means of evaluation remains the most reasonable mechanism of testing at universities.

“In some instances, exams are the most straightforward way to evaluate a student’s learning in the course. Some people, however, don’t perform very well in examinations and they need lots of preparation, coaching, teaching in order for them to be more effective,” he said.

“It’s a little bit like democracy; not necessarily the best method, but better than all the others.”

— With files from Emily Miller

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