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Faculty Development Center

Testing, Grading, and Learning

Select tests and assignments that both teach and test the learning you value most.

B. E. Walvoord and V. J. Anderson

Most students dislike preparing for and taking tests and most instructors are less than fond of constructing and grading them. Yet while they can create anxiety and distress, tests, as we know, serve several crucial educational functions. They not only allow us to see how much students have learned, but good tests reinforce learning by focusing on the central issues or concepts in a course. Tests motivate students, especially when students know what to expect from an exam and how the exam relates to the structure of the course. Well-conceived tests, which are analyzed after the grades are delivered, also help students see what topics or skills they still need help with. And finally, exams don’t just result in a grade for students; they can help instructors understand more about their own teaching.

When we construct courses, it’s essential that methods of assessing student learning are, from the beginning, at the forefront of our thoughts. As Walvoord and Johnson put it, “The way to save time, make every moment count, and integrate grading, learning, and motivation is to plan your grading from the first moment you begin planning the course and to consider not only how you will shape goals but how your students will. To do otherwise—to regard grading as an afterthought—is to create wasted time, dead-end efforts, and post-hoc rationalizations as students question their grades” (p. 17).

In order to construct effective exams, we need to begin by identifying our course goals and objectives; then it’s possible to determine how to construct tests that fit our often unspoken assumptions about what, specifically, students are expected to know. One of the most common complaints among students is that tests don’t relate fairly to the course—that the test is too easy, too hard, or covered only some of the material in the class or concentrated too much on certain areas while ignoring other topics. In short, tests remain just a painful exercise for students unless instructors carefully match teaching goals with the content of the test, making sure that the exam adequately measures student learning in areas that matter most—both factual and conceptual.

In addition, tests better motivate students to learn if they happen earlier in the semester rather than later—that is, if students know in the third or fourth week what you’re looking for rather than only during finals week. These early tests (especially if they are analyzed, after the fact, in class) provide crucial feedback to students. Some professors give an early diagnostic exam (graded or ungraded) just to indicate to students what and how to study. Others use shorter ungraded classroom assessments to provide feedback to students as the course progresses. Some, especially those teaching freshmen, hold review sessions that offer discipline specific advice on taking exams. Such early intervention can also help instructors determine what is or isn’t working in their teaching or in the design of the course—what topics may need more attention, what background material may need to be added, or what new assignments may need to be created in order to bring students up to speed.

Students can learn from the testing process, as long as we are careful about how we prepare them for the experience and careful about what we are trying to achieve as instructors.

For more information about the specifics of constructing exams (such as multiple choice exams or essay exams) or developing grading methods, see:

Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. (Available at the Faculty Development Center.)

Center for Faculty Evaluation & Development, Kansas State University. See especially the following Idea papers:

  • 16: Improving Multiple-Choice Tests
  • 17: Improving Essay Tests
  • 18: Matching Instruction Objectives, Subject Matter, Tests, and Score Interpretations
  • 19: Improving College Grading

A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence: by Barbara Gross Davis, Lynn Wood, and Robert C. WilsonSection Twenty-two: Giving Exams Demonstrating Student Understanding

Useful information and links at the University of Washington’s CIDR site: