No tests, no problem?

This semester I decided to do away with tests in my HSB4U – Challenge and Change course. My initial thought was that this would be well received by my grade 12 students – and why wouldn’t it be, no one likes tests, right?

Wrong. Much to my surprise there was push back from a number of my students when I confirmed that there would be no tests. By my estimation it was roughly one third of the class who wanted traditional pen and paper tests. Why? Because they are “good” at tests. And when you are good at tests you get good grades. The problems is, as explained by one of my students, “you can’t get 100% on assignments”.

In my grade 9 Geography course I still have tests, they may not take the form of what some may call a traditional test but they are tests nonetheless. What I have changed is the types of questions that I ask. No longer is the focus on memorizing facts and terminology the student could otherwise “search up” on Google, but rather the student is presented with questions and problems requiring them to apply their knowledge and think critically. Often the students get the questions the day before, so they must like these new tests and do well, right?

Wrong again. Most of my grade 9 students have been struggling with these tests and don’t like them. Why? Because they have never been asked to do this before. They have been conditioned to memorize facts and terminology, regurgitate it the next morning onto a test paper, and then forget everything to make room for more facts. When asked to think about what they have learned and apply it to a new context they are often at a loss. The skill set isn’t there or it is poorly developed.

So, what is the answer then? Tests or not? By the time students get to grade 12 they have figured out school. They figured out marks, they figured out what they need to do to get good marks, they are now good at school. The end goal for them is a good grade and unfortunately, for many students, it can be as simple as having a good memory. We need to either change how we do tests, or do away with them entirely – students need to become good at thinking, processing, and problem solving and not good at school.

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2 thoughts on “No tests, no problem?

  1. Firstly, hi Mr. Blackwood! I found your post very interesting, and I think the problem lies with the “education system” itself. Now that I’m in my second year of university I think I have enough experience to recognize the difference in my experiences between high school and university. And I’m not just talking about the usual “university is a much bigger place” but rather the difference between the way we do things.

    In high school, I was lucky enough to be a part of “BYOD” where I was able to access information whenever I wanted to. The “paper slide” and prezi presentations we made really helped improve my group work and cooperation skills. I remember for my Gr. 11 Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity course our “exam” was an interview where we had to answer questions that were also given to us ahead of time. Mrs. Breen also used this method in World Issues. I felt that this way of evaluation was much more practical as it not only put my knowledge to use but it also forced me to apply that knowledge critically. I did not have to memorize any key terms or specific concepts. I just had to talk about what I learned – which incidentally also helped me with my interview skills.

    Granted, we have access to internet and technology in university as well. We also have a huge library full of completely outdated books. However, many of my professors have banned the use of laptops in class, referencing to data and statistics from research that explained those using laptops (even those who only used it for note taking, without going on social media) did not do as well on exams compared to those who hand wrote their notes. At the beginning of the semester we are given a syllabus with a giant list of readings to do, many of which we get from a ridiculously expensive textbook published 20, maybe 30 years before we were even born! Halfway through the term we are bombarded with midterm exams and are forced to lock ourselves in our rooms rereading those 30 year old textbooks. Then come finals, many that are worth over 35% of our final grade and we repeat the midterm process all over again. The midterms and finals consists of the usual “short answer” and “essay”. If we’re unlucky we get hit with a 100 Multiple Choice exam. I’m pretty sure you yourself know this system far better than I do.

    These exams put an enormous amount of pressure on us students. They’re worth at least, if not more than half our final grade. If you screw one up, you’re screwed altogether. We spend hours going over key terms and concepts hoping we can memorize them all before the exam. If we’re lucky enough to get an exam where we can explain our knowledge we can sometimes get away with better marks. If we got MCs, it was do or die. I completely agree that these forms of evaluation are not very appropriate to fully “test” our knowledge. In addition, they aren’t able to help us apply it to the real world. How does writing an essay on comparing urban planning models and theories really help us in the future when we’re actually working as city planner? How does that help us figure out where to put schools and community centres? How does that help us solve the issues that arise from such tasks?

    I think it’s great that current Rick Hansen students are able to have appropriate forms of academic evaluation. I agree that tests and exams don’t help students improve their thinking, processing, and most importantly problem solving skills. However, the danger with emitting them is that students won’t be prepared for university evaluations. They won’t have interviews as their finals, nor will they have the chance to make podcasts and paper slide videos as their assignments. So really, the change that needs to be made here I think, is the definition of “academic evaluation” for ALL types of educational institutions. Post-secondary schools need to start applying more practical forms of academic evaluations that help students improve those important critical and problem solving skills. Otherwise, no amount of change in elementary, or secondary school will be able to fully help students with such development as they will be thrust back into the “old way” as soon as they hit university or college.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Heather. I think your comment got it exactly right – we have a choice as secondary teachers – we can continue to prepare our students to do well in university by giving them tests that include multiple choice questions OR we can ask the students to demonstrate their understanding in different ways (and yes, even on traditional tests).

    Multiple choice tests can be graded efficiently, and this is of importance in universities that have classes that number in the hundreds of students. It’s not the best way to evaluate students, but it is what it is.

    I guess we need to find a balance between the two or we need to decide what is more important. Not an easy decision to make and one that I don’t think many are ready to make yet. Thanks again for your comment and for making me think a bit more about giving tests to my students.

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