My Exam Academic Journey

by: Carol Hurney

The other day my students took their first exam and as I watched them scratch out answers, some furiously, others tentatively, I was reminded of my academic exam journey.   As an undergraduate, exams were my thing.  I developed a rather extensive exam preparation process and it worked to perfection.  Well, most of the time…  I was an obsessive note-taker, often to the point where I wasn’t really listening or processing information, I was just writing it all down.  Then, I would backwards plan from the exam date and begin decoding and rewriting my class notes.  This is when I would read the textbook because this is when I had questions.  I would seek answers from friends and TAs but rarely from the professor.  I would write, re-write, practice problems, attend every review session offered, but I never once asked a question during class or rarely talked with my professors.  Yet, I was successful … at getting good grades.  But years later, I as sit here and watch my students taking my exam, I am not so sure how much of my coding, decoding, and note re-writing actually resulted in long term learning.  Oh I am certain that I learned some things, especially if I had reinforcement from other classes, but I am not so sure I learned things in the disciplinary areas where I only took one class.  Ah, my dilemma.  My students are non-majors and they will only take this one biology class during their college experience.  Yikes!  How do I make learning stick??  How do I promote deep approaches to learning, so that most of my students can be informed citizens and understand the role of science in their world?  Well this story starts with the exam my students are taking …

Actually it started about 12 years ago when I was watching my students take the comprehensive final exam I “wrote” using a test bank and some other resources.  I was so proud of this neat, long, multiple-choice exam.  I was even more proud that after about 20 minutes none of the students came down to tell me they had found a typo or other problem.  Oh, those were the good old days… Because right after I came down from my “happy exam cloud” I started to realize that this exam bore little resemblance to the skills I wanted my students to have 5 to 10 years down the road.  In fact, I stood there horrified with the realization that I could care less whether my students knew the answers to most of the questions on the exam.  I almost got up to grab the exams away from my students. But I didn’t.  I knew at that moment that I couldn’t fix this educational dilemma with this group of students.  But I could start with the next group of students.  And I did… So, check out my next post, where I will reflect on ways I changed the exams I gave in my non-majors course and how this process is similar to the journey many other faculty take at some point in their academic journey.  My kindred soul from the previous post will be nodding his head in support as he reads my musings… at some point we both realized that what it really means to assess student learning.

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