This year I have switched to asking only short-answer questions on my American Government exams, instead of using multiple choice questions (and I have only rarely used long essay questions for that class), primarily to push the students to learn instead of memorize and to develop their writing skills (two areas that have suffered from NCLB).
It seems to be working, but I have a practical question:
How many short-answer questions do I need to ask on a midterm exam to get an accurate assessment of a student’s learning?
All the questions are in the syllabus, right beside the day’s reading, because A) I want to make it clear to the students just what I actually expect them to know, and B) I select one from the day’s reading for a start-of-class quiz. There were 29 questions on the syllabus prior to the midterm, and I semi-randomly selected 12 of them and required students to answer 10. I am now thinking that 10 may not be optimal, for several reasons.
- One is simply the time I invest in grading–I would like to minimize that without degrading the quality of the evaluation.
- The second is that a couple of students only answered 9. They weren’t doing too badly, so I don’t think inability to write at least something halfway plausible about the others was the problem. Rather, I think it’s just easier to lose track or miscount with a higher number than a lower number, so there’s a question of whether my approach had the effect of setting up some students to perform more poorly. It would be easy to criticize them for not counting properly, but that’s now what I think I should be grading them on in an American Government class.
- Finally, there’s the simple question of efficiency. If a lower number of questions is sufficient to assess student learning, what point is there in asking more? The test itself is not a part of the learning process–it is the studying for the test that is part of the learning process. If I thought it would result in sufficient study effort to promote learning and would be fair, I’d happily assign only one answer.
Given that, how many questions should I assign?