By Michael E. Orrison
When I first started teaching, creating an exam for my upper division courses was a genuinely exciting process. The material felt fresh and relatively unexplored (at least by me), and I remember often feeling pleasantly overwhelmed with what seemed like a vast supply of intriguing and engrossing exam-ready problems. Crafting the perfect exam, one that was noticeably inviting, exceedingly fair, and unavoidably illuminating, was a real joy.
As the years went by, however, the process of creating an exam began to feel more and more like a chore. What had once seemed like a vast supply of great problems now began to look like a nice, tidy, but ultimately small collection of simple and uninspiring questions. The excitement had worn off, and I was beginning to feel like I was spending too much time crafting or looking for problems. I still wanted to create perfect exams, though, so I decided that I needed to find a new source of inspiration.
So, a few years ago, in anticipation of what seemed like another uneventful exam making session, I decided to get my students involved in the process. A few days before I was to write the exam, I gave each student a sheet of paper that had, printed at the top, the following:
Problem Proposal: Propose a problem for the upcoming exam and explain why it should be on the exam.
I explained to them that (and I really do believe this) one characteristic of a good student is his/her ability to anticipate what an upcoming exam will look like. He/she should have a solid feel for the big ideas in a course, and be able to suggest several questions that could act as vehicles to demonstrate a thorough understanding of those ideas. This exercise would, therefore, give them an opportunity to go through that process.
I made it clear that the exercise was completely optional, and that there would be no "extra credit points" assigned to it. I did, however, tell them that I would carefully read each submission, and that there was a good chance that one or two of their problems would make their way onto the exam, especially if the justification was solid and compelling. I also told them that I thought this was a great way to begin studying for the exam, and that they were free to share their ideas with their classmates.
The response was wonderful. First of all, almost every student submitted a problem together with a solid justification; from their responses, I could quickly get a sense of what they thought were the major themes of the course. Moreover, their justifications were thoughtful and, more often than not, made their point while cleverly connecting together several of those major themes.
From an exam writing perspective, it was impossible for me not to feel as though the exam was essentially writing itself as I read through their responses. The questions were at the right level, used the right notation, and were focused on the right ideas. As you might expect, I found a lot of my old standbys in the mix, but they now seemed refreshed and ready for action. It was like being handed a draft of the exam, and I was the editor. It was the inspirational spark I needed.
I now use the Problem Proposal sheet in all of my classes, and at least 90% of my students submit a problem each time. I have found that in addition to speeding up the process of creating an exam, it gives me an easy way to gauge student understanding at key points throughout the course. Moreover, the resulting exams seem to be ultimately more fair and connected to my classes because, in a very real sense, they are derived (or at least inspired) by the classes themselves. Thanks to my students, crafting the perfect exam is again a real joy.
Time spent: About one minute to read through each submission.
Time saved: About 30 to 90 minutes of creating or searching for exam questions.
Michael Orrison teaches at Harvey Mudd College. He is the editor of the Teaching Time Savers series.
Teaching Time Savers Archives