Guest Post: Gary Wilson on online exams and minimizing lecture


We are pleased to include the following guest post from Dr. Gary Wilson of College of the Mainland in Texas City, Texas. In the following post, Dr. Wilson reflects on four decades of teaching and administration, highlighting his use of online quizzes and his attempts to minimize reliance on lecturing. 


gary__wilson1I taught my first college class as a teaching assistant at the University of North Texas in 1976.  My classroom management style was copied from instructors I had taken as an undergraduate.  I wrote outlines on a chalkboard, used an occasional overhead, and lectured from beginning of class to end.  After I received a doctorate, I completed a master’s in library and information science.  I took a job at Galveston Community College in Galveston, Texas as a librarian and left after twenty-five years as Dean of Student Support Services.  I only taught two classes in twenty-five years, because I was encouraged not to teach by the administration.  After leaving Galveston College, I decided I wanted to be back in the classroom.  By this time, technology had changed dramatically and I adjusted accordingly.

I became an adjunct in 2006 at College of the Mainland (COM), a two-year community college, located in Texas City, south of Houston, Texas.  The enrollment is approximately 4,000 students and many of them are the first in their family to attend college.  In 2010 I became full time as an Associate Professor teaching U.S. history and became a tenured Professor last year.

Over the last three years, I made two major changes as to how I manage classroom time.   The first change has to do with how I administer exams.  About three years ago, COM implemented a new policy requiring all students taking certain courses (including history) to give one five minute speech presentation.  A local survey of employers revealed that they thought our students needed better oral communication skills.  History classes have been capped at 30 students until this past fall when that policy was changed to twenty-five students per class.

I typically had given students five exams, plus quizzes, over the course of a semester.  With the new speech requirement, I was going to have even fewer classes to cover material.  I decided I needed a new approach to re-claim more classroom time for instruction and other activities.  I had also been teaching several online classes and was familiar with Blackboard.  I thought if I gave online students their exams and quizzes through Blackboard, I could do the same for the face-to-face classes.  I opted to give all quizzes and exams in Blackboard to the face-to-face classes.  I limit the amount of time they have to complete quizzes and exams, randomize the questions and answers, and draw questions from a test bank so students will not have the same questions.  Students now score higher test and quiz grades than those students who took their exams in class; however, the difference in scores is not substantially higher.  I provide test review questions in blackboard, study guides, and other resources to help them prepare.  I tell them they can use any resource they want for exams and quizzes.  Because there is a time limit for exams, students can look up some answers but they must study and learn the material in order to be successful.

Thus far I like this approach.  I have re-claimed at least five classes and this gives me more opportunities to interact with students in the classroom.  I have also utilized Blackboard for more than just exams and quizzes.  I have students read primary documents and answer questions in Blackboard.  I have divided the course into five modules and students must read and answer questions for one primary document per module.  I give students several primary documents to choose from.  Additionally, I have students view one film outside of class for each module and write a response in Blackboard.   They are also required to write a major research paper, plus shorter papers in Blackboard, giving me more class time with students.

The second major change I have made regarding classroom teaching came after I took a workshop called On Course For Student Success (  It lasted three days and provided information about how to manage class activities.  Prior to this course, I used PowerPoint and lectured almost every class for the entire class period.  Occasionally, I would have other activities such as class discussion and group activities.  The message from On Course was that lecturing was acceptable, but not all class.  Students should not just be listening in class but should be engaged in activities during the class.  I then changed my whole approach to teaching.  I frequently lecture, but I always have questions for them to answer related to the class material.   Sometimes students answer the written questions I give them while I lecture.  Other times I lecture, stop, pass out questions and have students work together to respond to questions.   I take their answers up at the end of class, grade them, and return them the next class.    If they miss a class, these assignments cannot be made up.

I thought it might be helpful to provide some specific examples.  One class I talked to students about the issue of reparations and the pros and cons of such a national policy.  I showed them brief film clips about this topic, divided them into groups and gave each group specific questions to discuss. Each group selected a team spokesperson and reported on their answers.  Another class I lectured on the dropping of atomic bombs in World War II. I asked students to respond to whether the United States should have used nuclear weapons or not.  There was a lively discussion and they wrote a response in class for a grade.

The total number of points for these activities over the course of a semester is approximately equivalent to two and one half exams.  I have observed positive changes.  Attendance is better and students pay attention to what is covered in class.  They are more engaged in asking questions and interacting with one another.   I may make modifications to this approach in the future; however, thus far I am pleased with the results.


One thought on “Guest Post: Gary Wilson on online exams and minimizing lecture

  1. First of all, I’m a librarian who teaches American history too, so it’s good to see someone else who followed a similar career path.

    Second, thank you for this post. Although I’m not currently teaching a face-to-face session (only online and the material is provided), it’s nice to always keep ideas in mind for the next time.

    When I was teaching face-to-face, I lectured most of the class period but sometimes I got tired of hearing my voice and so I started to incorporate more discussions into the class time. I like the idea of moving tests/quizzes to an online format too as that frees up more class time for discussion…

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