Saturday, December 22, 2012

Take a break from test writing!

Merry Christmas Eve (early)!

I still remember the class, class period, and teacher I had who first introduced this lesson - it was my junior year in Mrs. Heinz’ Psychology class at Metro East Lutheran High School.  I enjoyed Psychology class and was doing reasonably well.  As we made it through another unit, I expected to have another chapter test to be approaching.  Though I didn’t necessarily mind the tests, sometimes they could get a bit… well… boring/tedius/dull/dreary/uninteresting/unfulfilling/monotonous/repetitive.  I was in for a surprise when I heard Mrs. Heinz say that we will not have a usual test.  That got my attention, as I pondered what we were going to do instead of a test.  Was it going to be a project?  Were we not going to have a test?  Was I sleepin… er… I mean, daydreaming?  She announced each of us students would be in charge of creating out own test with answers.  I got excited, not because I was thrilled with the opportunity to practice my wanna-be teacher skills, but because I thought it was going to be easy.  I was used to teachers handing out multiple page tests every couple weeks or so, so I asked myself the wonderful question… “how hard can it be?” (Top Gear UK fans will appreciate that line)

The following night, as I sat down in front of my parent’s desktop, I began to look through the book and my notes to figure out what I wanted to write about.   Long story short, four and a half hours later, I had a greater appreciation for what teachers do!  That coming from a young man whose parents are both teachers!  I especially remembered my dad, a community college math professor, spending hours writing tests. (this still boggles my mind: he wrote all new questions for every test of every class for his entire 40 year teaching career)  I had no idea how hard it actually was!  I remember struggling to set the phrasing, formatting, and quality of the questions.  About halfway through, I contemplated starting over just using pen and paper.  I was shocked how much perseverance it took to write the test.  Once I was done writing my “monster” 50 question “test” I realized that I actually learned quite a bit.

It was such a great exercise that I tried it out for my sophomores in World History my first year of teaching.  Oh the smile put on my face as students piled in the day the test was due, having the same complai… I mean comments I had when I was a student in Psychology.  I also had students share their top 10 questions out loud, which was very beneficial for the class, and it added another 10 easy points to their tests.  I enjoy letting students verbally show both the hard work they put in, and what they learned.  I made sure to have a descent rubric, outlining things like: format types expected, quantity of questions, quality of questions, quality of answers of questions, etc.  Though they weren’t necessarily the easiest to grade, I typed out some of the top questions, and shared them with students, letting them know what will be on their final.  Overall, I had several students tell me never to do that assignment again, and I had a few say they really enjoyed it!  I have decided to do this assignment once a year, and look forward to improving and tweaking it throughout my teaching career.
Try it out… and see what you can learn

Thanks, John Zilm


  1. I do this at least once a year with each of my classes. The value is in thinking about content from a different perspective. I have found students to have a better understanding of test construction after this activity, which can help them in their problem solving. Retention does not seem to suffer either.

  2. I try to keep current with this blog and try each thing posted, or at least strongly consider it. This one is a huge sigh of relief because I already do this (occasionally) and I couldn't agree more with its value. Well-posted, and on Christmas Eve nonetheless.