Sunday, July 11, 2010

Testing, testing

I spent most of today writing a midterm; this is an activity that I both enjoy and hate. My tests tend to have a theme--biofuels, or Mycoplasma, or in today's case, origins of metabolism. For the students, the theme is a framework to hang all the questions on, and a challenge to their ability to apply general concepts to a specific case. For me, the theme is an excuse to learn more about a subject that I'm curious about. I enjoy the theme part of midterm composition.

However, I hate midterm writing more than I like it. It reminds me of the inadequacies and impersonality of education in this setting. So far, this class has met for the equivalent of 14 class hours, and the students have read a great deal outside of class. In a one-hour midterm, it's possible for the students to answer maybe twenty to thirty multiple choice questions, plus a handful of short answer questions. I am pretty sure that I've taught my students more than thirty-five discreet concepts. So, at some level, such midterms are not the most meaningful indicator of how a student is doing.

It's not that difficult to figure out a better evaluation mechanism--sit down with the student, ask them to explain each concept, unprompted, with regard to some specific example. (Of course, I would do this after using my jet-pack to fly to work from my private tropical island.)

I got to participate in a few oral exams for graduating seniors in a previous job, and I found that they actually could reveal a lot about the student. The closest I get with my students is asking them to write a short paragraph--but five sentences is rarely enough to reveal a scholastic personality, and after grading a hundred and thirty of those, I don't feel like I know anybody particularly well. And now, I find, that the oral exam isn't even part of the doctoral thesis defense here.

I sometimes consider giving my students the option of having their grade in the class based on an oral exam or a long-form essay. I wonder if any students would choose such an option; I wonder what percent of all students would pass. I would guess that such a policy would make me even more unpopular than I am now.

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