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Could weekly exams help students learn better?

Anusha Krishnan

Grading scheme to transform mid-terms into learning experiences
Grading scheme to transform mid-terms into learning experiences   (Photo: Anusha Krishnan)

Come March and April, and exam season begins. All over India, students in schools and colleges begin sweating as exam fever hits – it’s the final exams. These are the ones that really count, especially for undergraduate courses, since students’ grades depend on how well they perform in these exams. In many cases, first year students score poorly in the finals despite their efforts to do well - a fact that can dishearten students who genuinely want to learn.

One way to help such students is to change the way courses are designed and taught. A case in point is a recent study from Brigham Young University, USA. The study shows that a series of short weekly mid-terms with formative assessment before a final exam coupled with creative grading can help students learn better. Furthermore, the researchers’ novel model for assessing and grading avoided the discouragement typically felt by students when faced with poor grades. Instead, the course structure allows students to benefit from their mistakes without being penalised for early failures.

Typical course structures at the undergraduate level consist of one or two midterms, and a final exam. In most courses, the midterm exams are simply used to assess students’ ability to reproduce what was taught, rather than as tools to help them learn better. In the new system tested by Emily Bailey and her team at an introductory biology course at Brigham Young University, weekly formative assessment sessions replaced the more traditional mid-term exams. Added to this was a creative grading method to reward students for improvement and achievement. Final grades were calculated under five grading schemes, each of which assigned different weights to course work, midterms, and the final exam.

Although the benefits of repeated testing are well known - specifically that it encourages spaced studying over cramming, this new study differs from the usual application of the repeated testing system in several ways.

Firstly, the weekly midterm exams were formative sessions with each test having 10 - 20 questions, followed by a short pep-talk, and a feedback session. The feedback session worked to immediately address misconceptions and doubts, while the pep-talk encouraged metacognition in students by urging them to use failure as stepping stones to correct misconceptions or study practices. Students were given the message that they should not pass early judgments on their abilities, but should continue to work hard to learn. Secondly, the weekly mid-terms were comprehensive exams that were closely aligned with the finals. At least 60% of the questions in these exams required higher level thinking skills based on Bloom’s taxonomy. Each formative exam tested material introduced during the week as well as previously covered concepts – although identical problems were never repeated; new questions were framed to give students practice on the same concepts and skills tested previously. And lastly, the creative grading system emphasised the importance of the weekly exams, while also allowing for success despite early failures. This system of weekly tests coupled with the novel grading scheme transforms mid-term exams into learning experiences.

The introductory biology course that was used to test these changes in course design aims to teach students basic concepts of cell biology, genetics and evolution. Students were also expected to comprehend and think critically about scientific studies and biological experiments. The course was structured such that every week had a weekend reading assignment, two days of in-class learning activities interspersed with a day for assigned reading, one day for homework practice, and an in-class assessment at the end of the week.

The study, which has been published in the journal CBE – Life Sciences Education, strongly suggests that the repeated testing of concepts through the formative exams helped at least 40% of the students to score better on their final exams. Since the course typically has 140 to 225 students attending it every semester, the system seems to work quite well for classes with a large attendance. However, it must be mentioned that the course had at least one teaching assistant (TA) per 30 students, which means that TAs will be required to make the system effective. Feedback from students indicated that the formative assessments with immediate discussions of doubts and mistakes was well received. Specifically, students realised the advantage of discovering their errors without facing strong penalties.

“Multiple testing schedule of students for a shorter syllabus would definitely increase the clarity and remembrance of the topic. But I also feel that from student’s perspective, if they are taking up multiple such courses based on this format, it puts a lot of pressure on them in term sof reading for every weekend. Also, from a teacher’s point of view, especially considering Indian scenarios, (where few teachers have Teaching Assistants or TAs), the course instructor has to design tests every week which could prove quite taxing,” says Anu Sharma, who is a course instructor and researcher from Dayanand Sagar University, Bangalore, India. “I feel that the methods described in the paper can be useful once the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) is adopted by educational institutes as suggested by the University Grants Commission (UGC). This course structuring, if used for Masters/Postgraduates will also be quite advantageous as it will help increase analytical and deductive skills in students, helping them in their careers - be it in a corporate job or research,” she adds.