Formative Exams

Using Exams as a Formative Exercise

Generally, exams are viewed as summative assessments designed to measure the degree to which students have mastered course concepts and material.  Traditionally, instructors provide educational resources, students are tested over course concepts, and then both instructors and students move on to the next set of course material.  This sequence sets up a situation in which students have little motivation to review their mistakes or correct conceptual errors.  Thus, while the exam provides an assessment of student understanding at a given point in time, it does nothing to promote further learning or continued investigations.  In addition, the constraints of a typical exam (high-stakes pressure, time limits, etc.) create an environment in which many students make careless errors, thus the exam may not be an accurate measure of student understanding.  Ideally, instructors are interested in measuring a student's ability to master course information, not the student's ability to test; thus designing exams to serve both a summative and formative purpose can assist instructors in enhancing the effectiveness of traditional exams.  The following ideas may assist instructors in altering traditional exams to promote enhanced student understanding:

Personal Test Analysis and Correction

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Detailed Investigation

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Mastery Test Approach

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Optional Comprehensive Test

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Review of Common Testing Errors:

  • Misunderstand directions - Errors that are the result of failure to read or understand the directions.

  • Carelessness - Errors caused by rushing or failure to review the exam.

  • Poor testing strategies - Errors due to poor test-taking strategies such as high anxiety, failure to complete problems, changing answers, spending too much time on a single problem, incorrectly marking responses, leaving answers blank, etc.

  • Ineffective study habits - Errors caused by lack of preparation or focus on incorrect information.

  • Conceptual confusion - Errors that are the result of a misunderstanding of course information.

  • Inability to apply information - Errors that occur when a student has a basic understanding of course concepts, but is unable to effectively utilize this information in novel settings.

Resource Links:

The Relationship Between Formative and Summative Assessment: In the Classroom and Beyond

Test Taking Strategies (University of Minnesota at Duluth)


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