Usefulness of Tests

When the idea for a general teaching blog was first formed, David Birdsell, Dean of the School of Public Affairs here at Baruch College, made a great suggestion – writing posts on the face-to-face faculty development events such as our Master Teacher Series. Last week, Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and founder of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), conducted a session for the Master Teacher Series entitled, “Motivation for Teaching and Learning at the College Level:Facilitating Autonomous Motivation.”

While Edward Deci’s presentation was geared towards college teaching, he stated how motivation is very broadly relevant, for example, in parenting, sports, etc. He talked about the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competency, and relatedness) and their importance in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For this post, I will focus a only a small portion of his thought-provoking presentation – the usefulness of tests.

I liked what he said about the usefulness of tests. He explained that tests can be useful when we focus on the “primary function… to assess whether students have learned and can perform.” Therefore, “tests can provide meaningful feedback to students, teachers, and administrators.” One key point was to “minimize rigidity” in testing, for example, having students grade their own quizzes for feedback on how well they are learning the course material. He emphasized the importance of being respectful and responsive to students and to provide a choice whenever possible.

I have discussed with students how well the class is doing as a group on the tests and even changed the format of the final exam based upon those discussions. For example, in one class, I noticed that my students performed best on short essay questions in my assessing their knowledge and understanding of the course material. We came to an agreement that the final exam would be all short essay questions – students had to choose 20 out of 30 short essay questions to answer. I felt the outcome from this change was a better measure of what students had learned.

This leads me to ask:

Are you open to renegotiating the learning contract (the syllabus if we’re focusing on the explicit part) with your students?

What other adjustments have you made in your courses based upon students’ input in order to enhance learning and assessment?

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3 Responses to Usefulness of Tests

  1. Tomasello says:

    My introduction to the concept of extrinsic / intrinsic motivation came on the youth soccer pitch.

    Here’s a rumor that was going around my son’s 4th-grade team: “Sam’s grandmother gives him $5 every time he scores a goal.” I don’t know if that was true, but it certainly explained why whenever Sam was rotated into goal as keeper or to the back as a defender he’d have this crazy impulse to run to the goal with the ball and try to score. The money served as a clumsy, extrinsic reward, whereas scoring the goal itself was the intrinsic reward, sensible, truly rewarding, and ultimately more motivating.

    Ask a Baruch student, “What is the goal of taking an introductory class in music, anthropology, or Spanish?” We all know the answer we’d get. I’ve met too many students who connive to garner as many internships as possible during their college careers in lieu of focusing on their academic work. We all know where that leads. They’d all rather just “play the game” than get “trained.”

    If you want to succeed in a sport, sometimes you have to take hours of batting practice, run laps, or do weight training–tasks that are boring, repetitive, seemingly unrelated to the game. To reach the higher levels, above sandlot, however, “playing the game” is only part of what you do.

    At the outset of my introductory class, I present my students with this paradox of playing a sport and preparing to play a sport. I don’t know how well that analogy works, how motivated they become, or how they feel about not having an active voice in determining their own fates. But I’ve determined that’s what they need, and that’s what I can give them.

    Although I have tried to implement various student suggestions over the years, I feel that the instructor can’t empower each class to negotiate or tweak the syllabus every semester. There is too much variability, too much chaos. Perhaps, over time, I’ve become dogmatic and inflexible. I think, though, that I’ve found a way that works for me and, ultimately what’s more important, that works for them in the long run.

    Now drop, and give me twenty.

  2. WMillhiser says:

    I’ve been negotiating syllabi with students for 12 years. Why? (i) According to experts, students feel more “ownership” of the course if they have a say in the syllabus. (ii) In the real world, bosses negotiate annual objectives with their employees; students should experience this. (iii) It seems there is always more content than time in the semester, so why not let the students decide what to exclude? In fact, in some classes, I distribute the syllabus on the 2nd class after surveying the group on day 1.

    Also found Deci’s talk fascinating, though my colleagues in Organizational Behavior warned that not all scholars agree with his theories.

  3. Dennis Slavin says:

    Ken Bain, borrowing from Deci, is great on intrinsic/extrinsic motivation.

    Many of the Master Teacher Series events (including Deci and Bain) are available through Baruch’s DML (Digital Media Library). Here’s a somewhat cumbersome path:

    1. From the Baruch home page type “DML” into the search thing.
    2. Click on the first result that comes up.
    3. Type “Master Teacher” into the search thing there.
    That should take you the site. I think we have 16 videos there, dating back to fall 2005.

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