To Test or Not to Test? Retention, Application, and Confidence-Building and the American History Survey Course

At the beginning of each semester, I, like most others, spend some time evaluating my syllabus to assess if it meets the needs of my students. While over the years I have placed many assignments and activities on the chopping block, I continue to schedule a midterm and a final exam.

When I first became an instructor, I scheduled exams to assess retention of class information and the course readings. Over time, my objectives changed. Now, my primary purpose is to help my students gain confidence in their ability to retain and apply information. In short, by taking exams, my students learn that they can rely on their intellect and skills to recall and use details in a written format.

My midterm and final exams are closed note and closed book. My objective is to teach my students that they can retain and apply information in an analytical way with no outside help. I provide a study guide one week before each exam. The midterm covers information relating to American history from pre-contact to 1865. My final exam addresses American history after the Civil War along with one cumulative essay that asks students to trace the long-term effects of the institution of slavery in America. My exams consist of five multiple choice questions, five fill-in-the-blank, two to three identification paragraphs (IDs) based on topics covered in the readings/and the course lectures, and one to two essay questions.

I also schedule an exam review. The midterm review is usually brief as some students are hesitant to ask questions. Most have simply not begun to study.  By the time we review for the final, the majority of the students have started studying and have more specific inquiries about the content of the study guide.

I am aware of the arguments against written exams.  One opposing opinion is that in today’s world of technology there is little need to learn how to memorize details and events. If we need a date or to reference an article or another source of information we can run a quick internet search. But does that mean that we shouldn’t also practice retaining information? Can we take that detail and break it down and file it into our long-term memory for future use?  Of course! This is what I design my midterm and final exams to do; to teach my students that they can communicate information that they retained through dedicated study.

Now, I am not suggesting that my classroom is a site of educational utopia.  Yes, I offer a study guide, I explain the objectives, and I provide a safe space where students are encouraged to be imperfect. Each student must decide for her/himself to attend each class, prepare for the exam review and study. There are always some students for a myriad of reasons which cannot or will not prepare. Most students do take both exams and in the process improve their study and communication skills increasing self-confidence.

How do I know that my students feel more self-assured? I am not sure about all of you, but over the past couple of years, I have noted that an increasing number of my students struggle with anxiety and/or depression.  While I understand that mental illness has been an issue for a long time, more recently I have found that an increasing number of students experience these conditions. Over the last two years, I have chatted with a large number of my students about their fears of speaking in class, in submitting homework and taking an exam. Several students have told me that they do not believe that they can succeed.

How do my exams combat feelings of anxiety? By providing each student with the opportunity to stress about an upcoming assignment, to prepare, and then to complete the project, they grow in self-confidence. They realize that yes, they can do hard things. For example, when I arrive to proctor the midterm I usually encounter a group of quiet students waiting for me to unlock the door.  Before the final exam, I find my students sitting or standing outside the classroom comparing notes or discussing study techniques. I also hear others complaining about the exam and the study process overall.  This is a good thing!  This means that they are prepared and more focused on the process rather than their inability to succeed.

I also find that most students over-prepare for my final exam. This means that they arrive with so much information in their head it takes them longer than the assigned time to complete the exam.  I welcome this and never force a survey-level student to leave when the scheduled exam time is up. I would rather they get all of the information on the page. They can learn how to edit and condense material in future courses. As we all know, writing is a process, and I want my students to understand this as well.

These are the reasons I continue to schedule exams in my courses. While initially, I assigned tests to assess retention of knowledge, now I see them as serving a higher purpose.  By preparing for my exams, my students realize they can face a challenge head-on, and they can apply this self-assurance in other aspects of their life.

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