Today is the day for the midterm exam. While I have mixed feelings about exams, I do recognize the value of measuring student understanding in a variety of ways. And, though I'm not a fan of the full-block, paper-and-pencil test, when we do it I want to do it in a way that is as transparent as possible.
To that end, I have supplied my students with a set of preview questions. The word "preview" is quite intentional as I want my students to recognize that this is my best way to address the question of "What will the test be on?" As an instructor, I commit myself to making these questions first. Then I edit those questions in two ways to make the exam: I cut down on the number of questions and I alter the numeric values. In this way, I make a test that can be completed in our 90-minute time-frame and I guarantee that I align the test with the preview questions, as promised, without allowing for the possibility of success through memorization of answers.
In addition to having a hard-copy of the preview questions, I publish an electronic version of the preview questions with solutions. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, it promotes the possibility of student independence and self-assessment. Students can use these solutions to check their own understanding and correct issues on their own. Second, if there are still misunderstandings, students come to me with very targeted questions ("On this third line of your solution, how did you . . . ?"). Finally, as we do not use a textbook, the solutions provide a narrative of problem-solving that is often a great feature of a textbook.
This exam is focused on the units we studied in the first semester: thermodynamics, electrostatics, and electrical energy. In addition, some broader topics that were embedded in those units (vector addition and the conservation of energy, for example) are featured in the preview questions.
As we have had only short quizzes and no full-block exams this semester, I take a few minutes to provide a sense of my expectations by showing these midterm exam thoughts on the Smartboard. These thoughts are answers to what I expect to be "frequently asked questions." We do not have a test-taking culture in our class, so anxieties are often high about a variety of testing issues - units and partial credit, for example. By taking just a few minutes at the beginning to share these thoughts, I can relieve many of the common anxieties about the assessment and allow students to focus on the content of the questions. I also address any other questions that come up before distributing the exam.
I hand out the midterm exam. Students work and may ask me questions during the test. I draw a line between clarifying my intent and providing substantive help. In the case where a student misunderstands the intent of a question - perhaps thinking that two unrelated problems are somehow related - I am generous with my answer. it is common for students to be stressed during this exam week and that anxiety often clouds their ability to read questions carefully. I don't mind elaborating on these kinds of questions as my intent is to measure how much Physics they have mastered and not how well they can take a test.
On the other hand, if a student asks me how to proceed with a problem I have a standard answer: "I can't help you as that is part of what I'm measuring." As these questions are virtual duplicates from the preview questions, both the student and I know that this is a fair response.
Students are welcome to take the entire block to complete the exam. As they finish, they submit the exam and, by school policy, remain in class and quietly read, study, or nap.