Designing Summative Tests for Learning, April 2016

When is the last time you thought critically about the way you design and use tests?  Do your tests simply assess your class’s ability to repeat information, or do they offer students an opportunity to engage in critical thinking?  Are they tools that encourage student learning or simply exercises signaling the end of a unit?

Designing Effective Tests—Linda Nilson, author of Teaching at Its Best, recommends that before you write any test, you think seriously about what you are trying to accomplish with it:  Review your learning outcomes (identifying each one’s cognitive level) and ensure that your test assesses them adequately.  There’s no value to a test that assesses students’ ability to memorize hundreds of terms, for example, if the course learning outcomes all focus on the higher-order skills associated with evaluating real-world situations.

Preparing Students for Tests—Nilson suggests that the most effective way to conduct a review session is to insist that students come prepared to ask specific questions on the material and answer any review questions on their own—ask the class for answers before offering your own input.  Perhaps your input could be yet more questions that guide students toward understanding, but students should know that you will not be summarizing the lectures or reading, nor providing any answers.  To prepare students for tests, she proposes that instructors

  • Test early and often
  • Compose test questions immediately after covering the material in class
  • Give detailed written instructions for all tests
  • Start the test with some warmup (easy, low-stress) questions
  • Have another instructor evaluate the test for clarity and content
  • Proofread the test for errors
  • After the test, analyze and revise the test

Encouraging Students to Reflect on their Learning—Even summative assessments can and should provide opportunities for student learning, but students often dismiss graded exams after only a cursory glance.   Why not encourage students to reflect deeply on their learning by teaching them how to analyze their graded tests and evaluate their test preparation?  Educational psychologist Kristen L. Roush, PhD, recommends that although “many students have given little thought to their own role in their study habits and test-taking ability,” through her Test Performance Reflection model, students become aware of their behavior and its consequences, and they take more responsibility for their learning.  Roush’s model helps students recognize

  • The importance of comprehension, not just memorization
  • The possible need to work through a test more slowly
  • The value of paying attention to details
  • The danger of second-guessing
  • The value of asking for help
  • When/which study preparations are and are not working

Learn more about this model in this week’s 20-Minute Mentor video “What Key Factors Influence Test Performance?” (available only through Sunday, April 17th).