Feeling Testy: Assessing our Assessments

Tests and assessment make people angry.

Yes, this is a terrible film.

No really — tests, and the entire idea of assessment, can produce positively splenetic displays. The comments section of Christopher B. Nelson’s recent essay critiquing assessment provides an apt example. As the federal government pushes to hold colleges responsible for providing students with the best “value” for their dollar, and universities push assessments in order to prove (or expose a lack of) efficiency and excellence, it is easy to shout “crisis!” It’s equally easy to imagine testing companies’ CEOs and CFOs salivating over the money to be made from implementing standardized tests to assess whether university students have met desired (perhaps national) learning outcomes. Common Core Goes to College.*

I have a vexed relationship with testing. I’ve helped edit and write tests professionally. I also majored in secondary education at a school that emphasized a modified-Constructivist pedagogy; I was taught that learning is an active, continuous, individual process shaped by students’ previous experiences and which cannot be assessed using a tool that punishes or unduly stresses students. While there are valuable ongoing high-level conversations about assessment, including what sort of assessments are the optimal measure of learning (multiple-choice versus essay, national standardized tests, measures of student engagement, etc.), I want to focus on an assessment instructors control: midterm and final exams.

Exams: one of the many things that has killed Sean Bean.

Take my intro-level film course. To produce nuanced interpretations of films (a major learning outcome of the course), students must be able to apply a vast store of terminology relating to the compositional elements (sound, editing, cinematography, and mise-en-scène), as well as terms relating to broader processes. No essay assignment, or even series of them, could realistically require the use of even three-fourths of the course terms. I’ve found that even when students correctly define and apply a term on their quizzes and exams, they still might not do so in class or essays. I’ve administered a range of quiz types (multiple-choice, short answer, brief essay) and spent days crafting my exams, but I wasn’t satisfied that I was accurately measuring my students’ learning. During a final exam review session, surrounded by my sweating, overly-caffeinated students, watching them scribble down, word-for-word, the answers they and their peers provided to their practice questions, I realized maybe one culprit was the sort of memorize/regurgitate/forget culture tests can perpetuate.

Last semester, I taught the course again and tried a tactic I hoped would decrease student anxiety and increase net learning. Throughout the semester, I emphasized the ways in which our class discussions, short papers, and tests were all opportunities to confirm or refine their knowledge of course terms so they could produce exceptional final essays. At midterm and finals, my students took an individual and a group exam. If a student achieved a set score on the individual exam, then I would average their individual and group scores to calculate their overall exam grade (though only if it improved on their individual score).

During the group exam, they were instructed to talk through each answer to come to a consensus, so that students who made mistakes on their individual exams would be corrected by their peers. The exams themselves were a mix of short and long answer questions. For example: Identify 15 of these 20 terms in your own words and provide, for each, an example from a film screened for class. The individual exam was still a scene of frenzied writing (and sweating), but the group exam was a scene of teaching. Students argued about the difference between a long take and a long shot and whether US cinema had widely adopted color film stock during the Golden Age or after WWII. I took the questions most often answered incorrectly on the midterm and incorporated them into the final exam. For example, to see if they had finally grasped high versus low key lighting: List and describe four formal conventions of film noir, one of which must concern lighting, using appropriate terminology.


Images from http://filmschoolonline.com.

In class, in essays, and on their tests, my students deployed course terms with more frequency and accuracy. On my evaluations, students frequently cited these exams as both less stressful and more conducive to their learning, particularly because of the way in which they had to explain their answers to their peers and pool their collective brainpower. Some students will always see tests as an exercise in short-term memorization, and standardized assessments continue to creep into higher ed, but I think the current assessment fad is a valuable opportunity for us as instructors to examine and potentially revise our course assessments to assure they are best serving our and our students’ needs.


* Note: I am using Common Core here metonymically to represent the whole media discourse of “bad testing” — the Common Core Standards themselves present a much more complicated set of issues, and I’m not commenting on their relative merits or demerits in this post.

Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.


  1. First of all, I cannot believe that Final Exam is ACTUALLY a real film. But, more seriously, fantastic post and great innovative idea. I especially like how you call attention to the “memorize/regurgitate/forget culture”– a sort of culture that my own final exams might perpetuate. I end up feeling so ambivalent toward final exam testing, though, because, while I agree with you on the points made in this post, I feel like a final stills feels like the most thorough way to hold them accountable for the weekly readings and screenings. In addition to this peer pre-final, do you find yourself more inclined to scatter a handful of shorter assessments throughout the semester? I feel like if I were to conduct an assessment like you have developed, I would want to still make sure I’m holding them accountable for a larger majority of classroom concepts and terms. Have you found a way to balance these competing desires? (a desire for thorough accountability and a desire to best serve your students’ intellectual needs)


    1. Sorry if this wasn’t clear in the post, but they did their individual exam *before* their group exam. The group exam wasn’t a pre-final, but a post-final. I’m not all that big on pre-exam prep — sometimes I do a review session where I have students come up with questions they think will be on the exam and then have them answer those questions as a class. But the reason I do the group final after the individual exam is exactly for the concern you cite here — to make sure I’m holding my students accountable for the content of the course. For this split exam, the midterm and final covered a little less content than I covered in the midterm and final when I just did a regular exam the previous year, but I don’t feel like it didn’t cover the majority of the readings, concepts, and terms. But, in doing a split exam, I felt like it allowed the group exam to fulfill two functions that an individual exam doesn’t (while the individual exam still fulfilled the purpose it usually does) — first, students were able to get timely corrections from their peers rather than waiting a week until I’d graded the exam, and second, through discussion my students were able to reinforce their learning by explaining their answers to their peers.

      Does that answer your question?


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