Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In Search of the Perfect Midterm

Alas, the perfect midterm is something will never be found, but might, at best, be approximated at a moment in time. I haven't gotten there yet, but every time I write a midterm, I try.

I wrote one this morning. But not a perfect one.

A perfect midterm is one that let's students who've worked hard and learned lots really shine. Their work stands out, and the midterm gives you a way to reward it. And the students who haven't bothered to come to class or do any reading, they fail miserably, and you can see it as they stare blankly at the page, unable to make a meaningful beginning.

Most students do a fair bit of work, and in my classes, usually come to class and even participate pretty regularly. They're usually reasonably engaged. The midterm should help them show what they know, and ideally, should help them put things together a little better.

Because the most important aspect of a perfect midterm would be that students learned something from writing it. Sometimes, you can help students put things together better if you work on reviewing for the midterm well. But there are so many variables that I couldn't tell anyone how to do that except for my own classes.

Most folks have a fairly set format for midterms. Mine--which I adopted from working with my mentor in grad school, and which he adopted from his mentor, and which she, well, I have no idea where she got it--gives students two separate sorts of tasks. The first task is a short identification and explain what this has to do with what we've been working on in class; the second asks students to do a sort of mini-explication with passages.

There's one more thing about the perfect midterm: it's relatively painless to grade. Mine isn't, but it's not too horrible, either.

If ONLY I could think of a reasonably valid way to give a scantron midterm in an English class! But I never learned anything useful from taking scantron exams (and trust me, I took my share), while I did, in fact, learn from exams in many classes.

My favorite exam question of all time (from my mammology class):

at the bottom of one page of a short answer exam: What's the most important question in mammology today?

And on the top of the next page, otherwise blank: Answer it.

Of course, I wasn't one of those smart students who previews the test before I started writing, and I wrote in pen, and didn't go back to erase. I remember that I answered the first with a question about the development of body temperature regulation (endothermy) in mammals. And then I answered the second with a review about what we knew about the development of body temperature regulation (drawing also on a couple paleo classes), and then talked about why that development was important to the evolution of mammals.

I think it says something that I remember the question and more or less what I wrote after almost 25 years. I know I'd been thinking about such things in different classes, but the question helped me put together what I knew and made me realize that I had actually learned a lot.

I wonder now, thinking back, whether the answers tended to be interesting or irritating? Did most students write about a real problem and give thoughtful answers? Or did most write vapid questions with really uninteresting (though perhaps correct) answers? And how would you grade those? (And heck, maybe my own question was pretty vapid, but it seemed important to me at the time.) It's the potential pain of grading vapid questions that keeps me from using that sort of question in my own classes. But maybe I should try it some time? Just trust that at least some of my students will come up with really good, interesting questions?


  1. That is a fantastic exam question! The vapidity factor might be pretty high but the potential for thoughtful responses is definitely there, too. I may have to try this!

  2. My best one was in biomechanics, where they had one of those lizards who pops up its hood (using muscles, sort of a pulley system). They told you to design an alternate physiological system that would do the same thing. Awesome.

  3. I love the mammology question! And it does say a lot that you remember it.

    One of my PhD prelim questions as a historian (I work on the early modern period) was the same kind of thing: "Imagine an average person in 1350. Imagine an average person in 1700. What's different?" It's beautifully simple, and totally overwhelming. I've used variations of it on my undergrads ever since. :)

  4. High school biology semester exam. One question: Tell me what you learned this semester.

    I actually did fairly well with that one.

  5. I've done historical variations on the "what have you learned this semester one" and sometimes students get really cross because I'm testing them on what they learned and not what I want them to learn.

    But I love those questions. My grad school mentor would create characters, and ask you to write about their experience. Awesome.

  6. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Hmm. I have to disagree respectfully that this was a good exam question -- *possibly* unless this was an upper level graduate type class in which such judgment would be reasonable for students to make. Otherwise it really smacks more of laziness or serious time lack on the prof's part to me (although s/he probably paid for it when it came time to grade!)

    The best exam I ever heard of was an upper level astronomy exam at Princeton. The professor handed out 20 problems on the first day and said, "Five of these will be your final exam. If you can do these 20 problems well, you will have learned everything from this course that I wanted. So, here it all is." And the problems were so good, so thoughtful and profound, that his claim was really true. I wish I could write an exam like *that*!

  7. That bio teacher was one of the best teachers in our high school. She was always very clear about her high expectations and about what we should be learning (that is, everything she was teaching). It was, like many high school courses, very content-driven, but taking notes was relatively easy b/c she wrote everything important on the board.

    However, semester exams were only mandatory at our school for those who missed "x" number of days or had a disciplinary problem - I belonged to the former group - so there were only two of us taking the exam. She had always threatened to use this as a test question, so she did it with us. I studied my notes and did very well. It was a matter of demonstrating content knowledge. (It should be noted that regular class tests were more typical and almost always included a lab section).