Dear EdComm,

I recently had lunch with several colleagues who teach in science and other disciplines. While discussing student performance, several of them explained that they test students frequently and have seen dramatic improvement in their learning outcomes. I couldn’t stop thinking about how this would be impossible in my large introductory courses! Nonetheless, I would be willing to try it, but I’m not sure where to start. Is it worth trying to change things, and if so, how might I do it?

—Worried but Willing to Test

Dear Worried but Willing to Test,

It is a mark of a great educator to consider new practices and make changes where appropriate, so you have already passed that “test” with flying colors. First, allow me to clarify some language from your question. Students and educators alike use terms like “test,” “quiz,” “exam,” “mid-term,” and “final,” with each carrying an actual or perceived difference in importance. I prefer to use the blanket term “assessment” because it emphasizes that regardless of what you call these instruments, they are simply tools to assess student performance. So which kinds of assessments are your colleagues discussing?

We can broadly divide assessments into two groups, summative and formative. Summative assessments are designed to summarize how well the student has met the course learning objectives, typically at the end of units or the course. Many instructors use summative assessments only in the middle and at the end of the semester. These exams tend to be comprehensive, long, and arduous for the students to take and for you to grade. On the other hand, formative assessments are designed to inform both the student and the teacher how student learning is progressing. They can be simple (a single question even!) and quick and can often be scored by your institution’s learning management system or by the students themselves to save time in large courses. Strikingly, the literature reveals that students do not mind completing very low-stakes formative assessments (worth a point or two each), meaning that incorporating them into your courses will not take much effort or substantially change the total number of points students can earn.

Based on your colleagues’ anecdotes, I suspect that they are using formative assessment strategies in their courses. Many researchers have found that these types of assessment help students learn by “repeated retrieval” of information and that this produces better results than other ways of learning. See the Resources section below for a wonderful essay and summary of research on this topic by Cynthia Brame and Rachel Biel that appears in the June 2015 issue of CBE—Life Sciences Education.

So now that I have answered your question with big ideas and references to research, how about a practical application for your classes? I personally prefer to utilize what I call “quick quizzes,” which are projected as students come into class and settle into their seats. This is not the only way to do this, though. One colleague assigns a short online quiz on the reading due before each of his lectures, while another intersperses the questions while she speaks. Sometimes these questions review material from the previous class, but other times they preview material that the students have read but not discussed, or they bring back ideas from earlier in the course that are becoming relevant again. I keep the questions short—a few multiple choice questions or a single short response, explanation, or calculation. Importantly, I stress to the students that putting anything they can recall is better than leaving the paper blank. (I give quizzes like this on paper, but there are myriad ways to do it digitally, such as use of software like PollEverywhere, posting to a message board, texting, emailing, tweeting, etc.) In a smaller class, I can collect these assessments to look over myself and give feedback to the students, but in a larger class the students are more than capable of providing feedback to one another if you supply the expectations for the answer. This feedback is the key step—if you explain the correct answer only after the students have committed their answers to paper, they will gain something from the exercise.

The questions are often difficult and expand beyond ideas in class, so the students should expect to answer incorrectly sometimes; in fact, research indicates that the benefits of assessment are even more pronounced when the initial answers are incorrect. Making it exceedingly clear to the students that the results of these quizzes will have little effect on their grades (because they are worth a few points at most) allows the students to engage fully in the learning process without worrying about what they will receive as a grade. In my experience, students initially complained about the frequent quizzes, but by the end of the course many of them reported how helpful these quizzes had been to their understanding of the material.

Finally, as scientists, we are well aware of the value of data, so do not forget that formative assessment provides feedback to you as well. If only a small percentage of your class answers a question correctly, for example, you may wish to investigate why. Incorrect answers can provide the instructor with insights into common misconceptions, which can be corrected at the moment rather than lingering until the next major exam. It is also possible that the question was poorly designed or you presented the material in a confusing manner. Making your teaching decisions with as much information as you can will make for the best experience for you and your students. Good luck!

—Daniel J. Goduti (EdComm Member), The Haverford School

Regardless of our current role in the academe, education—for us and for our students—is central to our identity as scientists. With that in mind, the ASCB Education Committee (EdComm) is pleased to offer Office Hours with EdComm, a column addressing broad issues in education, ranging from career choice to curriculum development to incorporating technology into your lectures. EdComm Members and Associates look forward to answering your questions.

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Daniel J. Goduti

Daniel J. Goduti teaches biology and chemistry and coaches ice hockey. Originally from Newport News, Virginia, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry (specialization Biochemistry) and Biology from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Following this, he earned a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. For his doctoral work, he studied the regulation of flagellar motility in a unicellular green algae known as Chlamydomonas, and gained experience in molecular biology, cell biology, genetics, and microscopy techniques. Specialties: Inquiry-based learning, active learning, student research, cell biology, biochemistry, molecular biology

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