By Stacy Palen
Apropos of the last few posts by Ana Larson about online classes and cheating (Thanks, Ana!), this week, I’m working on my Astro101 midterm.
It’s important to state up front that I think the purpose of exams varies from course to course. In Astro101, I think the purpose of exams is to make students look back over the last several weeks and connect different concepts across the material. For Astro101, the review is the goal, as far as I’m concerned. Therefore, I design my exams to guide them to do that review in a fun and engaging new context. In contrast, in a different course, such as Physics with Calculus, I have other goals, and they really need that material to be quickly accessible and at their fingertips for the next course. I design those exams differently, and I ask them to do the review on their own and then take the exam.
Historically, my Astro101 exams are story exams. I plunk students down on desert islands or in zombie apocalypses or some other contrived (and not entirely realistic) situation, and ask them to solve astronomy puzzles in order to survive. They might need to be able to tell time by the phase of the Moon, or find out whether it’s before or after the vernal equinox by judging the position of the rising Sun against the (formerly determined) position of Orion’s belt. I’m always bemused that students tell me that they think these exams are fun and practical.
I give students several days to do them, because they really do need to read the question and then think about it for a while—in this particular class, I’m not interested in whether they can do things quickly. And they can use any resources they have except other people.
But the things that I really like about these exams is that they are:
- Motivating: Students want to figure them out for themselves…because how could they ever know if they could survive the zombie apocalypse otherwise?!
- Fun: Students like to take them. Truly. They talk about them to their friends, and I usually get questions on the first day of class about whether I’m going to do this kind of exam again. Sometimes, even in other courses, if a student took Astro101 with me, they’ll ask if “we are going to have fun exams or normal exams.”
- Fast to Grade: I have students draw pictures to answer a lot of the questions, which I can then grade out of a scale of three in less than a few seconds. For example, if the answer is first quarter, the Moon, Earth, and Sun are present and in the right orientation (3); they are all there, but drawn for third quarter (2); they are not all there or are in a completely different orientation, but they still drew something (1); or they did not answer the question at all (0). It typically takes me a full day (8-10 hours) to grade 120 exam papers because these picture questions take virtually no time to grade.
- Easy to Change, from One Semester to the Next: For example, I give them some data about the altitude of Polaris and ask whether they need to go north or south to reach a certain point. I can change that altitude, and people who are looking up answers online will not notice. So if I get last semester’s answer, I know to separate that exam to a different pile for…careful study. Or maybe they notice that this year it’s different. But to know why that difference matters, and give the correct answer, requires processing the material. And that meets my goal.
- Difficult to Cheat, Given My Goals: If I make them draw pictures in their own hand, then at some point, the information went through their brain, so some of it will stick. I’m satisfied because it meets my goal that they need to review the material and apply it in a new context. Because that’s my goal, I’m not bothered about how they go about it.
This semester, I hesitated all weekend about whether to send them the zombie apocalypse midterm. It seemed…insensitive, maybe…or just too stressfully close to reality. But then I made a joke of it, instead: It’s 2020—of course there will be zombie apocalypse! I bet they LOL and dive right in.