Wednesday, March 14, 2012

To test or not to test...

I was asked to write a guest blog at Trends in Graduate Education and Instruction about utilizing tests in online courses. Here's what I had to say:

As a student, I never particularly liked tests. But as an instructor, I’ve warmed to them. Especially those that enhance the learning experience and offer value to the course I’m teaching. 

I now use tests in my course for two reasons. Firstly, they allow students to check if they have met the learning objectives that I have set for them, and validates their learning. A good test allows students to examine the concepts they have been exposed to during the course, rather than rely on rote learning.

Sakai (the learning management software my department uses) has made my life distinctly easier. I can upload a test which is timed, has immediate feedback (so students don’t have to wait for their results), allows questions to be displayed randomly or in specific blocks, (which improves test security), and automatically exports their scores to the gradebook (so I don’t have to).

I use the instant feedback feature on Sakai to not only explain why the student picked the wrong answer (or provide positive reinforcement if they made the right selection), but also to explain why I developed the question, and why the concepts associated with the question are important to their learning. I’ve found that explaining the raison d’ĂȘtre for the question also preempts any concerns that students may have about the validity of the question itself.

The second reason why I deploy tests is that they allow me to calibrate the course for future offerings. I can modify course content, emphasizing concepts that students find challenging in the tests, and at the same time shore up potentially simplistic content. It’s a great way to adapt the course to allow maximum learning, and in conjunction with student feedback, an excellent way to incrementally improve the course.

But, as I realized when I took the recertification exam for my internal medicine boards, I still don’t like taking tests. I guess some things never change.