10 Steps to More Humane Final Exams

As this is the time of year when teachers and professors are writing final exams and students are studying for them (at least some of them), it is the opportune time to offer a few suggestions on how we can make final exams more humane. I am not convinced that most traditional final exams are a valuable part of education. In fact, the culture around final exams often distracts from the type of virtues that most of us want in our learning organizations. I’m especially critical of the traditional, time-based, and allegedly “objective” assessments that often take the form of multiple choice, true and false, and fill-in-the-blank questions. They do little to nurture an authentic culture of learning. Nonetheless, I’ll save that viewpoint, one that many in traditional education might consider more extreme, for another time. Instead, this article assumes that people are working within the dominant and existing system of final exams. Given that context, here are ten simple but significant ways to create a more humane context and culture for students taking final exams.

Test the Test

Is your test fair? Is it clear? How are you checking to see that the word choice and format of the text is not an unnecessary barrier for students? If the test is about finding out what students have learned, then it should not be a test-taking competition. Work WITH the students to devise a test that is fair, challenging, and has a good chance of measuring student knowledge and skill.

Go Easy on the Drill Sergeant Approach

What good comes from scare tactics? Some think that being extra tough and scaring people into studying is the way to go. In general, this will simply add more anxiety, reducing student ability to concentrate and prepare to the best of his or her ability. Why not take a more encouraging and coaching demeanor? Try being a compassionate coach and cheerleader more than a drill sergeant when it comes to test preparation.

Distinguish Between Rigor (Painful) and Rigor (Academic Challenge)

Rigor has multiple definitions. I’m all for creating challenging academic experiences, but there is no need to make it unnecessarily painful. If you go to the doctor to get a shot, they typically try to use the smallest needle necessary, and they have strategies to make it as quick and painless as possible. They don’t sadistically jab you with the largest needle that they can find. Let’s keep this in mind as we think about our test creation, how we prepare students, and how we deliver the tests.

Be Clear About Your Expectations

What will it take to be successful? Why not be transparent about that? What good comes from making it a guessing game?

Reconsider the Notion that Memorizing the Textbook is the Goal

I sometimes talk to teachers who like to throw obscure and “gotcha” questions on the exams to see if students read and nearly memorized the entire textbook. Is that really the goal of your class…textbook memorization? If not, go easy on this approach. The goal is not to trick or fail students but to measure what they have learned.

Check That You Are Assessing What You Said You Would Assess

If you provided students with a list of course objectives or outcomes at the beginning of the class, does your test align with those? If not, that verges on a bait and switch tactic. Test them on what you said they needed to learn.

Offer Tips for Success and Invite Students to Share What Works for Them

Why not offer some coaching and wisdom on what, based upon your experience, works best to prepare for the exam? You are not spoon-feeding students by being a coach and mentor. You are setting them up for success.

Find Ways to Celebrate Diverse Gifts and Forms of Growth Among Students

Sometimes tests are biased toward certain aspects of a course, but they don’t leave room for students to display other valuable learning from the course. Consider how you can design a test that gives all students a chance to demonstrate as much of their learning as possible.

Distinguish Between Worth and High Grades, as Well as Learning and High Grades

A person’s worth is not measured by final exam scores, so why not remind students of that? Also, I cringe when I hear people take an entire semester of rich learning and then reduce the whole thing to a score on a final. School is not primarily about getting passing or good grades, and when we make it about that, we are reducing the entire learning community to something far less relevant and meaningful. The goal is not to get a good grade. It is to learn what is important to learn, The exam is just a time to demonstrate what you learned. When we choose language that makes it all about getting good grades, we are cultivating a culture of earning over an authentic culture of learning, and that makes school ultimately less humane.

Make Student Success the Goal, Not Some Absurd Bell Curve

I remember talking with a professor who was delighted to see the even distribution of As and Fs, seeing this as a sign that his course was designed and taught well. I suggested that this might actually be a cause for alarm. Why didn’t more students reach high levels of mastery? Wouldn’t we rather that everyone learn a great deal and demonstrate that? The curve has no place in most learning communities. Maybe there is justification for it if there is some sort of exam that is part of selecting a few people out of a larger group, but courses are usually supposed to be about setting up a context where as many students as possible can learn and thrive.

Our classes are not factories. They are communities of people, and these ten tips are a good way to emphasize that fact during this final exam season.

Our Approach to Assessment is Holding Us Back in Schools

Back in April 2016, I enjoyed serving on a panel at an event hosted by Educause called Exploring the Next-Generation Digital Learning Environment: Opportunities and Challenges. My panel included three people. One focused on learning analytics. A second concentrated on student advising. I was given the area of learning assessment. The connection between these three areas is that they all rely on learner data. As such, all of this was in the context if what some refer to as the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment.

Talking about learning assessment is a bit tricky because not everyone works from the same definition of assessment. However, consider the following two uses of the word.

Assessment is a process of determining “what is.” Assessment provides faculty members, administrators, trustees, and others with evidence, numerical or otherwise, from which they can develop useful information about their students, institutions, programs, and courses and also about themselves. This information can help them make effectual decisions about student learning and development, professional effectiveness, and program quality. Evaluation uses information based on the credible evidence generated through assessment to make judgments of relative value: the acceptability of the conditions described through assessment. –

The National Academy for Academy Leadership 

Compare that with the following explanation from Duke’s Academic Resource Center.

Assessment focuses on learning, teaching and outcomes. It provides information for improving learning and teaching. Assessment is an interactive process between students and faculty that informs faculty how well their students are learning what they are teaching. The information is used by faculty to make changes in the learning environment, and is shared with students to assist them in improving their learning and study habits. This information is learner-centered, course based, frequently anonymous, and not graded.

Evaluation focuses on grades and may reflect classroom components other than course content and mastery level. These could include discussion, cooperation, attendance, and verbal ability.

While there are varying uses of the term, here we see that some use assessment as a non-evaluate and largely formative process. Its purpose is to help teachers refine and improve the learning experience for students.

Yet, if we look at various formal assessments and their uses throughout history, we see another perspective. In some instances, we see that assessments were largely used to identify, weed out, and qualify. Consider that the multiple choice test that dominates so many assessments in learning organizations, was used to test the intelligence of WWI soldiers. It did not initially get traction but was applied in school settings as the education system in the United States was becoming industrialized, with more of a mass production mindset.

Where assessments might have been a means of weeding out in the past, today our needs are different.  The college degree is like the high school diploma of the past to many. With the doors opening to college and the desire to expand formal education in the broader population, the goal is less about weeding out or restricting. It is now about identifying, supporting, maximizing impact, empowering, and even personalizing learning. This is an important and significant shift in the way we use and think about assessment, even as some still think of it in this older sense.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I tend to focus upon formative assessment because it is focused upon that which can help learners right away. It is the checkup at the doctor compared to the autopsy. The checkup allows us to suggest changes and prescriptions to improve a patient’s quality of life. When you get to the autopsy, that is no longer a consideration. It is just about getting insight that might help the next person.

When it comes to assessing learners, however, there are many perspectives to consider. There is assessing progress toward a standard or objective. This is about seeing how close or far one is from meeting that standard or reaching that objective. Then there is assessment focused on personal or relative progress. It is comparing how one progressed from where that specific person started. Did that person grow significantly or not? Then there is assessment focused on the nature of the progress, progress compared to some expected rate or type of progress (a typical student would be here by now). Next there is assessment interested in the process of the learning. It is not just about what you have learned but how you have learned, giving teacher and student insight into successful or less than successful strategies.

I contend that our approach to assessment must continue to change. If not, it will prevent us from accomplishing the broadening aims of education in the contemporary world. It will inhibit access and opportunity. It will also fail to help each student maximize personal growth and development.


What if Schools Made Progress Visible?

In The Game Changer: How to Use the Science of Motivation with the Power of Game Design to Shift Behavior, Shape Culture, and Make Clever Happen, Jason Fox offers anyone interested in the intersection of game design and motivation studies a thought-provoking read. For me, a key takeaway in his book can be summarized in a three-word quote: “make progress visible.” Amid the many theories and suggested strategies for increasing motivation in the workplace, Fox focuses upon this core concept. People are more motivated when their progress is visible, when individuals have some means of frequently seeing how their behaviors are impacting the extent to which they are making progress in their work.

Back when I started exploring why some students cheat and others do not, I quickly found myself traveling into a wonderful and richly rewarding world of research. I learned that the old-school policing and crime metaphors for cheating and school missed the mark. I discovered that one of the easiest ways to reduce cheating was to change the environment. Reduce student anxiety and increase student confidence going into major, high-stakes assessments. Then people don’t seem to have as much of a drive or temptation to cheat. That is what led me to my more recent work and writing about the power of formative feedback and assessment.

By giving people lots of frequent and focused feedback, we help them see whether they are progressing, giving them motivation and confidence to persist in their learning. In other words, we can design a learning environment that helps bring out the best in ourselves and others, and a significant part of it was very much in line with what Fox explains in his book. There is power in making progress visible.

This is such an incredibly simple concept, but one that can improve any classroom or school that takes it seriously and makes it a central part of how we think about designing learning environments and learning experiences. As Fox points out in his book, this is why so many of us are motivated by something as simple as creating a checklist and marking off items as we complete them. It is why, in the presence of massive and intimidating projects with little feedback, we often procrastinate and revert to small tasks that we can complete quickly and see our progress or accomplishment.

I would love to see a school take this single concept and make it a priority for a single school year. How would it impact the student experience, the school culture, and learner motivation? At the same time, there is no reason why this must be the sole responsibility of teachers. Imagine the power of helping students learn how to create their own mechanism of making their progress visible. By engaging in such an exercises, they will develop a deeper understanding of what progress looks like in a given domain, and then learn how to create systems that are motivating and allow them to make more consistent progress in their learning.

Are we assessing what is easy or what matters the most for students?

Are assessing what really matters for future success of our students? This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

“We know that we’re not assessing many of the things that really matter for future success.”

I’ve written about this many times and am almost finished with a new book on the subject of assessment. Yet, I have seen this happen countless times. We assess what is easy to assess instead of what matters most to us. Sometimes people object, noting that we will soon prioritize what is easy to assess over what we value the most. Each time, the advocates assure us that they (and we collectively) will not let that happen. The assessment is added and, over the next year or two, the priorities and values change, aligning with those items that are easy to assess. It happens all the time.

Or, there is the flip side. We argue that what matters most is not easily assessed. As such, we give up on assessment. We don’t measure much of anything. We probably still use grades or something similar, but we downplay it. Maybe there are required measures but again, we dismiss the numbers as not being about what matters to us the most.

The problem is that measurement matters. Or, more specifically, feedback matters. Feedback helps us learn and grow. When it is absent, our growth sometimes slows down or even comes to a halt. Simply documenting what is happening and measuring progress toward a goal can increase motivation for people. This is why I am not ready to give up on assessment. It is just that we want to commit ourselves to not going the easy route, not giving ourselves to that which is most easily measured, not letting the assessment tail wag the “what really matters in education” dog.

I’m convinced that this means embracing assessment as tool that serves greater goals, and giving greater attention to formative feedback and assessment than high stakes assessments. Assessment is most valuable when we use it to determine our progress toward goals that are important to us.

Start with the values an goals. Then you ask an important question. What is the absolute best evidence that someone is learning or growing in this area? Or, what is the best evidence that someone met this goal? Be completely unrealistic. Give your ideal answer even if you know that it is impossible. Once you have that answer, bring it a little closer to reality. What is the next best evidence? Keep doing this until you have something that will work, at least tentatively. Try it out, knowing that it is not perfect. Revisit it often. Critique. Hold on to it, but not too tightly. Be open to new and better ways.

Data scientists might protest. This doesn’t give us the rich and large data sets to analyze. This isn’t carefully analyzed for reliability and validity. This prevents us from generating valuable reports or looking at longitudinal data. It doesn’t let us compare across contexts as well. All of these are worthwhile critiques. Yet, we must respond with other questions. What is the purpose of assessment? Does assessment have inherent value or does its value depend upon how well is serves some other goal or agenda? If the assessment data does not help us measure what matters most for students, what is the point?