How Do We Measure Learning?

What if every exam-based class in college started with the final exam?

Students would file into the lecture hall (or multimedia interactivity space) on day one and take the test. Their teacher(s) would then use the students’ responses to gauge – immediately and precisely – what kinds of prior knowledge and experience they’ve brought into the class. Meanwhile, students would encounter the learning goals of the course, having already seen what knowledge and skills would be needed to achieve those goals. No mystery, no doubt: students and teachers would know where they stand, and where they need to go.

Fast forward to the end of the semester: on the last day of class, the students would take the same test again. (Students with photographic memories aside, most would not remember the exact questions from the first time they took the test. And the exam could be constructed in such a way – using mostly essays, for instance – that remembering the questions would be the point.) Their teacher(s) could then do a before-and-after comparison of student learning to gauge whether the course had satisfied its learning goals. Each students’ progress would be apparent to both teacher and student. Grades could be determined on the basis of progress or standardized achievement. And teachers would have a fascinating body of data that they could use to tweak future iterations of the course.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to have this idea, but I haven’t heard of its application anywhere, either – with one exception. As Head TF of First Nights last semester, I had the opportunity to administer an ungraded, low-stakes version of this exact assessment. In the coming weeks, I’ll “publish” some of what I learned from this experiment. In the meantime, if you have experience with something similar, or have thoughts about its implications (positive and negative), please share!

4 thoughts on “How Do We Measure Learning?

  1. I taught fluid mechanics for over a decade, teaching to a test is bad in any case.
    Any test that can be given quickly and easily evaluated cannot be very digonistic.
    Problem sets and lab reports relating to work actually done by the student thinking through an issue gives a better evaluation. Still better are projects of several weeks duration that involve practice and working around variations on principles, these actually engage the student in applying ideas, both old and new.

  2. This is a great idea since, as you have mentined, gives students and basically the teacher on the aspects to be emphasized the most. It can give an overview of the weaknesses and strenghts of the learners. However, there might be situations where students would get a high score, and this provoke a lack of interest from students who already know they have knowledge of the things to come.

  3. Dick Land, I couldn’t agree more that long-term projects engage students more effectively, get them to apply skills and knowledge, and give teachers a more comprehensive assessment opportunity than exams.

    But there will always be exam-based courses (probably), and working within that constraint, I’m interested in crafting useful assessments, and improving the assessment culture for students and their teachers.

    I guess I could also ask, what about a course that starts with a problem set, rather than a lecture designed to give students the information to go work on the problem set?

  4. As long as the tests could evaluate a student’s ability to apply knowledge learned, I think that this would be a good way of measuring the amount of knowledge gained during the course.

    I remember my Molecular Genetics course where I had two professors that didn’t seem to talk to each other about what was being taught. The class would be told to read 300 pages for the test. In the 300 pages, there would be diagrams of 50 to 100 gel electrophoresis (all of which look very similar). On the test I was asked to draw the gel that proved X.

    Memorizing hundreds of pages of information is not helpful in the real world. Application and an understanding of what the results of the electrophoresis meant were much more important take-home messages.

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