Tests that test.

Ironically, the most friction I have had with the students has been over the part of the course I am most pleased with.  They hate my tests. I think my tests do good.


After some reflection (1, 2, 3), I believe this tension is because we have diametrically opposed views on what tests are actually for.  The students think that, like their drivers licence tests, any semiconscious person should be able to pass, and that a flicker of neural activity should generate an A (class comments).  I think tests should test.  The right tests (mine!) are a way of forcing students to think.  I had complaints about this.  Thinking is not popular. Especially not thinking hard. But that’s what university should be about.  I also think tests should tell me what I am not getting across to the class as a whole, and tell individual students what elements of the course they are not understanding.  Well designed tests (mine!) should also generate teachable moments.  Ideally, lots of them.  Stretch the students, watch them snap, and then teach those moments.
But of course the students want A‘s. Not stretching.  And so then they threaten to give the course bad ratings.  Bad outcome all around.

So I wrestled with this, and probably beat myself up about it more than was useful. How to make the tests test, without a student revolt? Here’s what I hit on. I was setting 25 multiple choice questions. This means only a few wrong and even the best students head B-wards.  So why not ask 28 questions, and mark out of 25?  This allows three wrong answers before marks start to drop.  The students interpret this as a gift, and I interpret it as space to stretch the students.  The merit of this scaling system is that it rewards the better students, without generating freebies to those who get a lot of things wrong.
Student reaction after I scaled Class Test 3 this way:-
Then I got an A!! Thank you Andrew!
this is so much more helpful and easier on us. thank you Andrew!
I love u Andrew
total bro move thanks dr. Read


More generally, I think this is the 21st Century challenge to university teaching. They come here wanting a great transcript.  We (and broader society) want them to become better educated.  How to reconcile those two missions?

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