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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are exams about testing or can they be about learning?

Using individual as well as group exams in two classes this semester has taught me that exams can be about more than just regurgitating facts.

Research has shown that the use of group exams in college classes has three positive outcomes: group work promotes deeper understanding of the material; groups outperform individuals; and group tests are less stressful.

I could spend a lot of time on the first positive outcome, 'promotes deeper understanding,' and how its my belief that deeper understanding and the integration of learning into the brain is really what teaching and learning is all about for me. But I'll spare you.

Rather, I want to share the additional positive outcomes I have seen in the two classes where I have introduced individual plus group exams. First, students show up and stay in the class. If you think that's not important, just look at statistics regarding retention, and talk to college instructors on attendance rates. It's a really, really big deal!

The second additional positive outcome is that students are much more engaged and open with each other in those classes. Even more than in classes where we do a lot of group/team activities - there seems to be something about sharing the anxiety and the pressure and the success of an exam that deepens the bonding.

Just one example: before the final exam in one of the classes, one student brought 'good luck' necklaces for the team members. They all wore them proudly during and after the exam, and even stayed on after everybody else had left. They talked about how they didn't want the class to end. When have you heard that the last time from a student?

I will try to implement individual and group exams more, and will continue to watch for the impact it has on student success and learning. But, equally important to me, I will watch for retention and engagement in those classes.

Millennials live and learn differently. It is our job as college instructors to provide an environment where they can learn and be successful.

Change, the only constant!

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