Bad exams, great class: an unusual case study in excellent teaching

Fun fact: I’m a student again. I’m doing an online M.S. in Data Analytics, hoping to become eligible to teach community college, and to learn a bit of actually-doing-stuff skills (which I sorely lack).

Anyway, I want to share with you a course review I just wrote, because in explaining what I appreciated about the class, I found myself describing (1) my basic philosophy of teaching, (2) a formidable obstacle all teachers face, and (3) how this particular teacher overcame that obstacle.

Here’s what I wrote:

Teaching well requires articulating what you want students to learn, and then creating tasks and experiences to help them do that.

Harder than it sounds!

Many teachers let the tail wag the dog. They figure out tasks that would be easy to grade, then try to impute their own pedagogical values from these easy-to-grade tasks. Before long, they’ve lost contact with some of the values they once held most dearly.

Professor S. resisted this temptation. He made clear at the beginning that some of his highest values would be hard to assess:

  • the flexibility to try multiple approaches
  • the skepticism to question one’s own results
  • the communicative clarity to explain what you’ve found, and
  • the wisdom to know the contexts and limitations of our models.

He then created a course that honored these values through ungraded discussion questions, videos exploring case studies, a peer-graded project, and peer-graded homework assignments that asked us to apply the models to our personal and professional lives.

The exams, although they constituted 75% of the grade, constituted a far smaller fraction of the student experience of the course. That’s exactly as it should be.

I’ll elaborate a bit.

In my view, the work of teaching is to figure out what students need to learn, and then creating experiences to help them do so.

This effort runs smack into a big obstacle: the systematic pressure to assign grades. Too many teachers abandon hard-to-grade experiences (writing, teamwork, projects, reflections) in favor of easy-to-grade ones (multiple choice questions, individual work, textbook problems, exams). Then, in a final step of ass-backward tragedy, they realign their goals to match their assessments.

All those hard-to-quantify virtues? Forgotten. An imperfect measure of success becomes, in a soul-numbing tautology, the definition of success.

How did Professor S. evade this trap?

Well, in an online course of 1000+ students, there are two basic ways to assess students: (1) the expected way of bog-standard multiple-choice exams, or (2) some unexpected way, which will require a visionary concept, tireless execution, and most elusive of all, student buy-in.

Why fight that fight? Instead, Professor S. gave the bog-standard exams. He made sure that course grades matched student expectations, conservative and uninspired as those expectations may be. But then, he remembered what so many teachers do not.

The grade is not the class.

With the grade sorted, Professor S. sought structures that would nourish learning: rich homework tasks, engaging lecture videos, student discussion forums, and an open-ended project. He ensured engagement on these not just by giving them a bit of weight in the grade (25% in all), but by telling us, at every turn, that he valued these things highly. They were not labeled “optional” or “extra credit.” They – and not those bog-standard exams – were the essence of the course.

If asked for teaching advice, I would never say, “Assign 75% of the grade based on boring multiple-choice exams that don’t really follow through on the most interesting aspects of the course.”

But this is mostly a reason that you shouldn’t ask me for teaching advice!

The true measure of a course is what the students learned. And I believe that, by any fair assessment, Professor S. taught us a lot.

15 thoughts on “Bad exams, great class: an unusual case study in excellent teaching

  1. I have to add (from the point of view of a professor) that unfortunately, using all of those wonderful alternative assessments and expecting the corresponding critical thinking along with them often meets with student resistance, which translates into lower student evaluations, which are used for professional assessment. It’s really really hard to simultaneously stay true to your values as an educator and also “please” students enough so that you don’t get bad “reviews”. Not saying it’s not worth the attempt, but damn, sometimes you’re just tired of working so hard for the benefit of people who will throw you under the bus for it.

    1. Yeah, I hear you. This strikes me as a compelling reason for why course reviews shouldn’t factor heavily (or perhaps at all!) into tenure decisions. Learning is hard, lectures are painless, and classes that push you out of your comfort zone are, by definition, uncomfortable.

      That’s part of why this professor struck me as a good model. He’s not a juggernaut all-star inspirational genius, and his approach isn’t one of those success stories that’s entirely dependent on a charismatic workaholic individual. Instead, he’s a mortal human who made some savvy, well-planned compromises.

  2. I think students who care about their grades are doomed. You have to learn because you are curious, the grade should be ignored because it is pointless, it’s just someone’s opinion. I do enjoy your books a lot though!

    1. I like the sentiment, and aspire to it! But as a teacher, having seen that grades can shape young people’s lives for the better and (all too often) for the worse, I understand why they tend to care!

      It’s a bit like saying people shouldn’t care about money, and should do their jobs for the love of it. Ideally: yes! But in our fallen world…

  3. But on the other hand, we haven’t got any better option other than old-and-boring multiple choice questions when it comes to assessing students’ understanding of concept, right? Or am I just not aware of it?

    1. When a department wants to assess whether a PhD candidate has mastered the material, they give a 3-hour oral exam!

      When a coach wants to assess whether the players have absorbed the new techniques, strategies, and physical conditioning, they play a scrimmage!

      When a journalist wants to assess a politician’s policy approach, they ask lots and lots of open-ended questions, and follow up where necessary!

      And so on. The only reason ever to do assessment by multiple-choice exam is that you’re so extremely pressed for time that the other options aren’t feasible.

      1. Ah indeed! What i mean is in a classroom setting and with teenager(especially middle schooler). I am sorry for not being precise.

        From my experience, giving kids those age with open ended questions tends to backfire. In this pandemic time, most teachers in my district opted to open ended exam questions. The answers that those middle schoolers give are generic on average. But, maybe that is because i live in third-world country and it is just a reflection of terrible education.

        1. Oh, assessment is always hard! And teachers are perpetually pressed for time. And the pandemic made everything 500% harder on top of that. So I understand why multiple choice questions may feel like the best (or only) option.

          What were you teaching this past year?

        2. Indeed. I can totally understand that! I really like open ended questions though. But seeing how my average students fare with them is just discouraging. But I find those questions are good and well-liked by my more academically gifted students.

          I am a tutor. I teaches math, science, language, social science and civic

        3. Sounds like a nice mix of subjects!

          I think all students (and all people!) benefit from open-ended questions. If someone lacks the literacy skills to write out answers, then oral discussion works great.

          I know how discouraging it can be to see students struggling. Often they need a long ladder of little steps before they’re ready for the big new task. Still, if the new task is important (and I think that being able to apply your knowledge flexibly is important!), then it’s worth the effort.

  4. Hold onto that dream! It won’t be the teacher who will wreck it. It will be someone in government who never taught before who will make learning-damaging procedural decisions. I am a teacher trainer. Have taught for over five decades. The teaching world needs you and your principles.

  5. As you may remember, I’m something of a MOOCaholic, and while an online degree program is a different animal, there are similarities as well.
    Assessment has always been the Achilles heel of moocs; in the early days, they tried peer-assessment, which didn’t work out so well (cheating was rampant, and the results were unpredictable no matter what). Most current moocs are what I call “Youtube plus a quiz,” and an information-retrieval quiz at that. Meh.
    But there are exceptions. The MIT biology department does an exceptional job of creating a near-lab experience (their focus is on engineering after all) in its problem sets by telling a story: you want to do an assay one way, your lab partner wants to do it another, why does she want to do that; another team got different results from yours, what might they have done to account for that? it’s all multiple choice, but you really have to understand the information in the unit and be able to apply it; you can’t just look stuff up in your notes.
    There was also an earth science course that did a really good job of using several different assessment methods, including practical applications, but that was flawed by poor course management (lots of errors, and no one interested in fixing them).
    Most math moocs have disappointing assessment methods, but there are a couple of exceptions: I “met” you through Keith Devlin’s Mathematical Thinking, which was outstanding but required his presence (and that of his hand-picked and trained assistants), and that’s anathema these days in moocland; courses have to be on-demand and run independent of instructors. There was also a Precalc based on IBL that could’ve been great had there been just a little more support; I suspect it’s meant for use by instructors in brick-and-mortar classrooms who can provide that support. But a couple of savvy TAs could’ve made it work beautifully.
    It’s a tough problem, especially in humanities, because no one’s figured out a substitute for the essay.
    I hope you’ll continue to describe your experience doing an online degree, I’m really interested in hearing about it.

  6. As you may remember, I’m something of a MOOCaholic, and while an online degree program is a different animal, there are similarities as well.
    Assessment has always been the Achilles heel of moocs; in the early days, they tried peer-assessment, which didn’t work out so well (cheating was rampant, and the results were unpredictable no matter what). Most current moocs are what I call “Youtube plus a quiz,” and an information-retrieval quiz at that. Meh.
    But there are exceptions. The MIT biology department does an exceptional job of creating a near-lab experience (their focus is on engineering after all) in its problem sets by telling a story: you want to do an assay one way, your lab partner wants to do it another, why does she want to do that; another team got different results from yours, what might they have done to account for that? it’s all multiple choice, but you really have to understand the information in the unit and be able to apply it; you can’t just look stuff up in your notes.
    There was also an earth science course that did a really good job of using several different assessment methods, including practical applications, but that was flawed by poor course management (lots of errors, and no one interested in fixing them).
    Most math moocs have disappointing assessment methods, but there are a couple of exceptions: I “met” you through Keith Devlin’s Mathematical Thinking, which was outstanding but required his presence (and that of his hand-picked and trained assistants), and that’s anathema these days in moocland; courses have to be on-demand and run independent of instructors. There was also a Precalc based on IBL that could’ve been great had there been just a little more support; I suspect it’s meant for use by instructors in brick-and-mortar classrooms who can provide that support. But a couple of savvy TAs could’ve made it work beautifully.
    It’s a tough problem, especially in humanities, because no one’s figured out a substitute for the essay. Al Filreis moved his ModPo into his own domain, but assessment was never part of that mooc.
    I hope you’ll continue to describe your experience doing an online degree, I’m really interested in hearing about it.

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