A201. Spring 1987.
Indiana University has what is widely considered one of the top public-school business schools in the nation. I was working through a business minor to go with my telecommunications major, dreaming of someday becoming the play-by-play voice of the Chicago Cubs. My classmates were probably looking forward to becoming princes of Wall Street. It was the 80s, after all.
Now known as the Kelley School Of Business, it was renowned on campus for its two-year preprequisite program. 11 courses, ranging from English Comp to Stats to Business Law, all completed with a grade of C or better. That grade requirement was really just window dressing though. The B-school took 1200 students a year. Everyone with a 3.0 GPA in their prereqs was in. After that – well, you were ranked highest to lowest. Number 1201? Sorry, thanks for playing. Go find a new major.
So I’m sitting in a giant lecture hall one fine May morning, taking my final exam in Accounting. I’m surrounded by overcaffeinated frat boys who would step over their own grandmother to ace this class and build up their prereq GPA. As a minor, I really just want to pass, pack my stuff, go home and go sit in the bleachers at Wrigley.
The test is 33 multiple choice questions. Coming to the final page, I felt reasonably OK about how I had done so far. Probably not great, but good enough. Then I saw it.
Huge exhale… I mean enormous. Not six weeks earlier I sat in the Louisiana Superdome as Keith Smart hit the shot that gave Bob Knight his third national title. And gave the Hoosiers their fifth banner in Assembly Hall.
You’ve probably guessed that I’m thankful to that instructor to this day.
One of my go-to teacher blogs is Infinite Sums, by Jonathan Claydon. The dude is literally a rocket scientist – an engineer in a former life (OK, construction engineer, not NASA, but still. Engineer.). The subtitle of his blog (“Vertically Aligned Whimsy”) tells you everything you need to know.
I’ve never met him, just read his stuff (and follow him on Twitter), but it’s pretty clear we share a sense of humor about the job. When his kids aren’t Jumping The Shark, they’re drawing Kittens In A Rocket Ship.
So this week, with a quiz on Solving Systems Of Linear Equations looming, I swiped this idea without a twinge of regret. No conscience whatsoever.
I should probably point out that until we get to quadratics in May, my Algebra 1 students struggle with systems like nothing else. Neuralized daily.
Nobody does well on this quiz, ever. In 13 years of doing this, through all the various methods, I strike out swinging. Every. Single. Time.
Look, half these kids I just met. Most of them are super frustrated with math. I’m not above bribery. Or in this case, throwing out a little playful thing that might buy me a smile and help them forget they are really bad at solving systems.
Call it “The Great Equalizer”. Or at least, some easy points that all my students will pick up. Which most of them did, with varying degrees of aesthetic quality, and varying degrees of enthusiasm.
I made a decision long ago, after watching my students take a few of my algebra quizzes: no multiple choice. I’m not interested in finding out how good you can guess, or how well you can cheat. I care if you know the math we’ve been working on learning the last couple of weeks. Maybe that drives my students’ scores down. Well, not maybe. Definitely. You can’t guess how to show the work if you have no idea how to factor a quadratic, or solve for y, or write the equation of a perpendicular line.
But maybe I can vary the level of difficulty of the questions? Is that a best practice? Legit pedagogy? I’ll never forget a discussion in an Assessment class at UNLV (taught by a midwest-raised professor who not-so-secretly wanted to work for the National Storm Prediction Center. They told her to come back when she had a Ph. D. in physics. Which I don’t doubt for a second she could have completed. But that’s a huge committment for someone who is already well-entrenched in a career).
A student asked if it was fair to include a test question only her best students would be able to answer. The instructor turned it back around, asking, “Is it fair to include a question you think all your students will be able to answer?”
The student said, “Of course.” The professor then stated that yes, that challenge question would be completely legitimate, in particular as a way to separate “A” students from “B” students. True, but I also took that exchange to indicate that it was important to create test questions with a range of difficulty. Here’s how one document from Indiana University suggests planning an exam:
The easiest way to ensure a representative sample of content and cognitive objectives on the test is to prepare a table of specifications. This table is simply a two-way chart listing the content topics on one dimension and the cognitive skills on the other. We want to include content and skills in the same proportion as they were stressed during instruction. Table 2 shows a simple table of specifications; it is intended to be illustrative, not comprehensive.
Most importantly, the suggestion is that test questions match the type of exercises given as practice during the chapter.
I’m far from the first teacher to write a silly, playful question into a test. My oldest recalls a final exam in his freshman algebra class in which the stem to a multiple-choice question read “Pick ‘C'”. Another year, his math teacher asked his students on a test “2 + 2 = ?”. He resisted the urge to write “fish”.
So I can justify (to myself anyway) writing a test question that all my students will get right, that some might have fun with, and that will take some of the sharp edge off a class that many of my students find incomprehensible. Plus, it’s playful. And my students seemed to enjoy it.
Will I ask them to draw a dinosaur every test?
Nope. But I know what question I’m using come tournament time. Number 33.