In this Resilient Teaching blog post, Program Chair and Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Blake Gillespie shares a curated list of sources for faculty to re-imagine assessments—multiple choice (m/c) exams, in particular, which have been the subject of much discussion in the Spring 2020 pivot to emergency, virtual instruction. Join us LIVE on Facebook on June 10, 2020 at 12:30pm for a follow-up Q & A interview about this blog post (and about assessment more broadly).
I know you are all working so hard to make this semester work. I myself have failed to accomplish much that I set out to do with students during lockdown. Student disengagement really robbed me of motivation… it’s hard to bend over backwards for students who don’t seem to care (or don’t have emotional/cognitive space to care)? I did a gunpowder-ethanol demo in my garden (embedded below) that should literally have blown socks off, and I got ‘meh’. And the enormous stresses of managing family stuff with elementary school closures drained much of the energy and attention available for CSUCI.
But you are all real heroes, and I really want to thank you for all the energy you’re putting forward on behalf of our students.
With my love and praise for you in mind, please know that this message is not meant as criticism of any instructor. Rather, please see it as an exhortation to think hard going forward about one particular aspect of our work. It’s an aspect of our work which, in terms of our hours of time with students, is actually not that important… but which we train students to believe is all important. I’m talking about tests.
I know this may not seem relevant to many of you, especially if your class doesn’t involve much assessment. But I do hope I can at least provide a framework for what I see as a departmental value: creative connection of meaningful assessment to learning object.
I know there is a great deal of consternation about cheating on tests, given how easy it has become to find answers to exam questions. Going forward from this term, I’d like you to check your assumptions about the value of m/c exams in student learning in this new context.
I want to give you some thoughts and resources by which to consider this problem, even though I hope you will not start planning for Fall until after a nice break.
What I’d like you to consider is, if cheating is a problem, whether you can allow yourself to stop thinking about how to catch them cheating on your m/c exam. Instead, consider how to create learning objects that are themselves the assessment.
- Guide to Developing High Quality, Reliable, and Valid Multiple Choice Assessments
First, I’m linking this JChemEd article about how to best use their exams. What I can say is that people seem to love it. But please don’t read it – ACS is bending over backward to keep us invested in (their) m/c exams with all these best practices. I would like us to focus on the failures of the m/c exam. This failure has so many dimensions (equity!!!), and the cheating pandemic gives us room to reflect on the fact that they do not support student learning. I can see why a big school teaching 3000 gen chem students a year would resist using anything but an ACS exam, but that’s not us. We are small enough to be personally invested in every student.
- Instead, read this: Why Ask Why?
I have attached this one, because it is awesome. The author says it better than I ever could, “Here, I argue that one overarching goal is to help students construct causal, mechanistic explanations of phenomena. In chemistry this means we are working to help students use their understanding of molecular level interactions to explain and predict macroscopic events. Furthermore, while constructing explanations is an important goal in itself, the very act of constructing explanations helps students develop a deeper understanding, and provides the kind of intellectual satisfaction that memorizing facts cannot. I hope to convince you that our current approaches to assessing student learning are, in fact, all too often counterproductive and almost certainly contribute to students’ inability to connect ideas and develop a useful understanding of chemistry and that hat these assessments send the wrong message about what chemistry means (and why it is valuable).”
- 3-Dimensional Assessments and Helping Students Develop The Necessary Skills
This article gives a nice perspective on how to develop test questions that “require students to analyze data, use and interpret models, demonstrate mathematical and computational thinking and construct explanations.” The key here is requiring an explanation of the answer… to really get at student comprehension, you need more information: m/c tests can not give an accurate assessment of student comprehension. PERIOD.
- Alternatives to Traditional Testing
I like this because it gives you ideas about how else to assess your students. Guess what? These will be hard to design. And you won’t feel comfortable because they are not m/c tests, or even tools that require students to recite answers on command at all.
Example 1: If you’re teaching nomenclature, assign them construction of a poster (hell, call it a “cheat sheet”) on nomenclature rules that would be used for the m/c exam you’re not going to give. Will they look up answers? Yes! Will they synthesize a ton of information in a creative way? YES! Will they be able to regurgitate that information within 1 week of their cram session before a m/c exam? Who cares? Will you have given them a learning opportunity in which both process and product are assessable in terms of learning outcomes? Yes!
Example 2: If you’re teaching dimensional analysis, make them design a resource for teaching dimensional analysis to the poor sardines at UCX… a step by step algorithm? an interpretive dance? a mnemonic device? Yes! Then ask them to test these with their classmates in groups. Will they look up answers? Yes! Will they synthesize a ton of information in a creative way? YES! Will they be able to regurgitate that information within 1 week of their cram session before a m/c exam? Who cares? Will you have given them a learning opportunity in which both process and product are assessable in terms of learning outcomes? Yes!
I submit to you: if all you do to prepare this summer for Fall’s online lectures is find ways to link assessment directly to learning objects that push students to construct and synthesize knowledge, your time will have been infinitely better spent than finding the perfect lockdown browser or proctoring tool. It will help break the cycle that leads to cheating in the first place: the creation and reinforcement of the students’ perception that a score on one particular assessment will determine whether they can continue pursuit of chemistry.
Rant ends. Enjoy your day!
Submit your questions for Dr. Gillespie!
If this blog post evoked questions for you about meaningful assessment, multiple choice tests, or STEM learning, we invite you to submit your questions here and Dr. Gillespie will answer them LIVE on Facebook on June 10, 2020, at 12:30 PM (PST).