facts & factoids (to test or not to test, that is the question)

I gave my online students a survey last week, to determine where they were spending their time (I’d gotten some complaints about my class being too time consuming, so I thought if a bunch of students all said they were spending too much time doing X, I’d try to figure out a way to scale back in that area).  The results were that they spent the most time doing two things — reading the material and doing the chapter responses.

Now, the chapter responses are basically this:  a 2-3 page (double spaced!) summary of the material interspersed with their thoughts on the material. In this way, I am not only assessing if they did the reading and understood it, but if they are able to think historically.  For instance, in a chapter that includes information on late 18th century colonial slavery, I not only want them to get the facts of it (7.7 million slaves, etc), but also why the colonists found slavery to be a solution for their labor shortage.  They don’t have to like slavery — in fact, I hope they find it deplorable — but they have to understand WHY the colonists didn’t think like we do.

After I posted the results of the survey on the course Announcements, I heard from several students, all of whom have asked that instead of the chapter responses, I switch to chapter tests.  I am hesitant, however, because tests, particularly the kind they seem to have in mind (multiple choice), don’t really assess student learning in any meaningful way.  Yes, they will have had to read the material, and do the work in order to take the test, but let’s be honest.  How many of them will sit down in front of their computers and go hunting for the answers in their books during the test?  They may get good grades on the tests, but have the really learned anything about history?  Or are they just utilizing the skills they learned in high school — namely, how to take a test without actually retaining any of the information?

And yes, I come at this from my own past, where I memorized this fact, that name, a date or two, and never really got any sense of history as a process.  To this day, I can spout lots of facts about Japan after 1635, but do I really understand the relationship between the Dutch and the Tokugawa Shogunate?  (Well, NOW I do, but as an undergrad? not so much). Can my students, based on three multiple choice tests, really express anything meaningful about the relationship between Andrew Jackson and the economics of the 1830s?  Or the reasons why, despite the English and American Revolutions coming before them, the French Revolution is often cited as the turning point for modernity?  And if they can’t, does it matter?  And if it does matter, then how do I get them to see that, and more importantly, express that, if I am utilizing what we all agree are less-than-perfect methods of assessing that knowledge?

Those of you who teach online, or who think about how best to help your students understand history, and even more important, THINK historically, how do you approach this issue? Do I give in and give them multiple choice tests (which, let’s be honest, would be a lot easier on me in terms of grading than reading 45 2-3 page papers each week!), or do I make them write?

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 11:29 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. With enough cunning, couldn’t you make the test four open response questions, probably equaling 2-3 double spaced pages? It’d be basically the same thing.

  2. OOOh, interesting thought. Do it as an essay test. Hmmm.

  3. How are the chapter responses scored? They may be under a false assumption that the prep work doesn’t count for anything.

  4. Shayda, they’re based on several things, namely how well they understood the material (based on their summary of the chapter material), how well they engage the material (based on their incorporation of commentary that is thoughtful and on point), and the ability to adhere to standards of written English. I don’t think they understand how the prep makes their assignments better, but I’m not sure how to explain that…got any ideas?!

    • You could try to frame the assignment as a combination of learning the subject and learning how to learn. When I tutor students for AP I emphasize that they’ll be studying and self-testing from their notes, not the textbook, so it’s important that the notes be complete. However, if they’re not satisfied with that explanation, it might be a case where you tell them that the assignment follows the steps that they need to be doing anyway, and if they’re not doing it, they’re not learning.

  5. As someone who recently returned to school taking both online and campus classes, I would have to say that I would be much happier having to do a two page analysis of the chapters instead of doing multiple choice tests from the test banks. The multiple choice tests focus on the minutia versus have I really learned anything. Melissa, don’t cave make them learn how to analyze and write, not prepare for trivia contests.

  6. Steph, this is why I love you. But you know, all those factoids came in handy doing pub quizzes!

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