Making a midterm exam is always a tricky thing especially in an introductory level class. For my introductory history class there is the challenge in determining what I am trying to test. In its classic formulation this is deciding between testing for content and testing for technique (or method). For a history course, a test that emphasizes content mainly (if falsely) evaluates the ability to recall names, dates, places, events. In contrast, testing for method, technique, or understanding centers on the student's ability to discern or make arguments for causality in historical event using some version of the historical method. The former is frequently, although not always, associated with "factual" multiple-choice exams. The latter with the dreaded essay.
My introductory level class requires writing. I have weekly writing assignments, a paper, and require the students to write at least one in-class essay. Many of my students do not like writing. They dread writing in-class essays, they grouse about the paper, and they frequently fall behind in their weekly writing assignments. In the past, I would have a midterm essay exam and the dread in the class would be palpable for weeks in advance. As the same time that discontent with the midterm essay was reaching its peak, I was asked to take the Praxis II subject test in History. The Praxis II is the standard test required for certification to teach history in North Dakota. The test was, predictably, multiple choice and focused on, in part, crucial, but ultimately assorted names, dates, and events.
We require students who want to teach social studies or history in North Dakota to take our complete sequence of introductory history classes. So two years ago, I made a concession. I gave the students an option on the exam. They can select one of three types of tests: all multiple choice, half multiple choice and half essay, or all essay. I modeled my multiple choice questions after the kinds of questions found on the Praxis II; they include not only names and dates, but more complex analytical answers which, ideally, show that the students understand the main themes of my class as well as the basic narrative. The essays are a more standard variety. For the all essay exam, I include a "quote identification" question which requires the student to identify a passage from a primary source and discuss how it fits into or represents a major theme in the course. The second essay is the opposite. It requires the student to produce an argument (related to one of the central themes of the class) from the primary sources and historical "facts" that they have assembled from their reading and my lectures over the course of the semester.
Generally, the all multiple choice exam is the most popular with the students and the grades on this test represent the full range of possible student performance (not exactly a bell-curve, but some students perform at every grade level from the catastrophic to the perfect). The grades on the essay exams tend to produce a slightly higher average as there is a slightly larger margin for error; I am willing to accept a wider range of possible responses to the questions. Moreover (and perhaps more significantly) the essay exam attracts students who have more interest in history and are more experienced writing essay test (typically upper classmen). So student grades cluster slightly higher and the average grade is typically much higher since there are fewer "catastrophic" exams. I can usually find a way to give even a hopeless essay a few points, but on multiple choice the answer "B" is never even close when the right answer is "A".
I am not really sure whether the students appreciate the choice between different kinds of exams. I also wonder about the fundamental fairness of the practice. I have not yet begun to fathom the implications of different kinds of tests for different kinds of learning in the sticky matter of assessment. Once we open a class to a wider range of potential, student-directed, outcomes, it becomes far more difficult to assess performance and success.
More Teaching Thursday:
Teaching Thursday: Red pens, Reading, and Assessment
Teaching Thursday: The Structure of Seminar
Teaching Thursday: Jennifer Ball's Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis and J. Ball)
Teaching Thursday: The Changing Meaning of the Large Lecture
Teaching Thursday: The Modern Graduate Student
Teaching Thursday: Reading the Digital Palimpsest for Traces of an Analog World
Teaching Thursday: Who Are My Students? (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday: Another View on High Tech Teaching
Teaching Thursday: Transmedia Teaching
Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis)