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nikipedia's avatar

What's the best way to evaluate students?

Asked by nikipedia (27300 points ) March 3rd, 2009

I went to see a professor today about an exam he gave us recently. I pointed out that often, when we have two professors writing questions for two sections of the same exam, the scores between the two sections have almost no correlation. He said that he had actually measured this in the past and found the correlation to be between 0 and 0.2.

And this is for graduate-level coursework, with essay-style exams written and graded by experts in their fields, and taken by pretty clever students, if I may say so.

My professor pointed out that multiple-choice tests are even worse, and in fact people tend to walk away from these tests knowing less than they did going in.

So how to solve this problem? Should we do away with testing altogether? If so, how can we differentiate students who learned the material from those who didn’t?

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4 Answers

Les's avatar

We can’t and it will never change. The people who can memorize exactly what the teacher wants will always get the good grades (be it essay style or multiple choice), and those of us who work hard to understand the material will get the lower grades. The people who get the good grades will pass the class with flying colors, but will not really know anything (at least, they won’t be able to explain it to you if you ask them for help), and we will understand a few important topics, but won’t get a “good” grade because we didn’t learn (read: memorize) the right thing.
Then these people who memorized, didn’t learn and got good grades will coast through grad school because no one really cares at that point and will get the good jobs because they obviously know the material very well (sic) in order to get such a high mark in those classes.
Meanwhile, we (the “underachievers”) suffer through the rest of grad school because our grades don’t reflect what we actually know, but the professors won’t see it that way. They see it as we just didn’t get the material, therefore they must push us and quiz us whenever they get the chance throughout the rest of our grad careers. Then, because our grades don’t match our knowledge, we don’t get as good jobs as the “others”, and we suffer still.

At least that’s what school taught me.
Wow. That felt good. Thanks nikipedia.

steve6's avatar

Just take the test.

BonusQuestion's avatar

I would say it depends on the course. I have found that in my major most of the times it is more helpful to ask students to do more HW assignments, take a few quizzes and try to test them through out the semester and not just at the end of the semester.

I would say at least 2 midterm exams, a final, 5 quizzes, and weekly homework assignments is necessary to evaluate students. But a lot of times this is literally impossible to implement because semesters are too shorts in a lot of universities.

But then this may not be a good idea for graduate courses as it seems this is what you are referring to. I would think an oral exam should be added to a written exam for graduate courses. But there are those who may be too shy or less confident than others when talking to their professor.

The problem is that those professors who are good researchers may not necessarily be good teachers. They may be damn good at their subject but they don’t spend time thinking about how to teach a course or the way they evaluate students.

P.S. There is 24 topics for this question. Is this a record? lol!

wundayatta's avatar

It would be interesting to do a study of what testing actually measures. I’d want to see if there was any consistency between professors, or if relationship to the professor is a better predictor of grade.

I suppose tests can measure what you’ve memorized. But if you want to know what someone can do with knowledge, you need to get them to write about hypothetical situations, or to actually work in situations where they need that knowledge.

As you might imagine, I mistrust evaluation systems. I have no idea what they are measuring, and I don’t know if what they are measuring is relevant to what I need people to do.

There are so many pressures not to fail students. If they flunk out, the school loses revenue. If professors have integrity and refuse to change grades, administrators can change the grades administratively, and, unless the professor checks (and how likely is that?), no one will ever know.

Of course standards are different at different schools, and it’s very difficult to know how different they are. A good student from a school with a lower reputation might actually be better than a good student from a prestigious school.

Now, I would never advocate for a universal testing system. I do not believe in no student left untested. I think education is a hands-on job, and the only way to really know how well a student is doing is to work with them. How many professors want to do that? Especially at a research institution?

At least with grad students, you can get a written recommendation from a professor, so you can tell something from that, reading between the lines. What that tells you is the student’s relationship with the professor. You’d be surprised at how many students ask for references from a professor who will not give them a good one.

But, schools need to have way to show consumers what kind of product they are turning out, and grades are it. I don’t think it’s worth trying to fix grading systems, because I don’t believe it can be done.

So that leaves caveat emptor. If an employer doesn’t check their new employee carefully, and use the probation period to really see if the employee’s work is useful, then they deserve to be saddled with poorly performing people. Reputations are self-perpetuating things. It’s hard to jump from a mid-level institution to an elite institution. Going to an elite institution shows—what? That you pal around with the right people? That your parents are wealthy enough to get you a good education? That you test well on SATs?

I guess what I’m saying is that tests are, and always will be crude instruments. Personal evaluation is the most meaningful thing. I think it’s a waste of effort to try to fix the grading system. It’s a schmoo. You poke it in on one side, and it pokes out on the other. The schmoo is endlessly adaptable, and not in a way we really like.

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