Exam design problem

For students, the final exam week is probably the most stressful time of a semester. They often have multiple exams over consecutive days and need to split their last-minute study and preparation time over these topics. I must confess that I also feel some stress during this week. Here’s why.

First, designing an exam is not so easy. I found it a bit easier for more theoretical topics such as probability and statistics, but in general I struggle to do this. To me, a good exam needs the following:

  • Cover the most important topics discussed over the class;
  • Cover both material discussed in class as well as readings and take-home topics;
  • Be at the right difficulty level;
  • Be of appropriate length (in terms of time needed to completion);
  • Be different from exams from previous semesters.

Covering the topics and material types is by far the easiest constraint to satisfy. On the other hand, the difficulty level is thougher to estimate from a one-person sample (myself). I want to measure the level of knowledge of the most important topics as well as the students’ proficiency in the main skills taught during the class. There are lots of pitfalls in this part. First, it is quite easy to write a question for which a smart person with general background and culture but no specific knowledge of the topic could get 60 to 80% of the points. It is also easy to test a person’s memory rather than his(her) knowledge or abilities, for example by asking to provide a definition of a concept. It is also very difficult to measure a person’s understanding, because communications skill (or lack thereof) get in the way of the measurement. Finally, I try to avoid asking a direct copy of a question from the manual but with changed numbers.

When I teach a totally new topic, the time is difficult to estimate, but I each year I seem to get better at this. My goal is that most students with good preparation have enough time to think about their answer before writing it down. Often this seems achieved when the median completion time is at around 80% of the exam’s duration. Usually, around 80% of my students finish their exam on time.

Finally, thinking more in terms of skills and knowledge and less about lecture content has helped me improve my exam building. I wish for all of my students to learn and succeed, but no one should get a free pass if they didn’t learn what they had to.

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