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What is the purpose of your exam?

Academia and examinations have a long-standing, intertwined relationship. While they can (and do) stand alone as separate entities, faculty and students alike have come to anticipate the convergence of tests and education. Arguably, these two components are the proverbial peanut butter and jelly of higher education. But as exams persist as a staple in educational environments, we can repurpose them and think about them in new ways by answering one underlying question: What is the purpose of this exam?

The most direct way to answer this question is to return to the course learning objectives. Strong learning objectives are riddled with action verbs. For instance, students should be able to solve equations, write essays, or explain key concepts. These action-centered activities allude to the idea that students will demonstrate active learning by constructing and submitting original coursework.

In the instance of a math course, the purpose of an exam may be to test the students’ abilities to solve complex equations. Initially, a multiple-choice exam might not achieve this goal, but a few adjustments could improve the exam focus. By eliminating an answer bank and grading students on how they demonstrate their work, students are producing tangible evidence that they have mastered the skill of problem solving. 

Another way to think about the purpose of an exam is to expand upon the definition of a conventional test. While standardized exams still have a place within education, faculty are now considering a variety of different assessments to substitute for exams.

Oral presentations, lab activities, concept mapping, and essays are just a few of the different styles of alternative assessments faculty are deploying in their courses. They are also experimenting with different tools and techniques for exam activities. Rather than asking students to fill out a paper (or electronic) test, students are submitting proposals, PowerPoints, recordings, portfolios, and even reflections as exam material.  

As our concept of education continues to evolve, faculty are increasingly emphasizing assessment of observable student behaviors. In a student-centric environment, the guesswork is being eliminated. Exams may vary in length, content, and delivery modes, but they share a common goal to assess the students’ own original content. If you can identify the focus of your exam, you can design an assessment that signals you are invested in assessing your students’ demonstrated skills and abilities.

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