Photo by Grant Holt

By: Brent Urbanski

University testing is the Neapolitan ice cream of student evaluation. With its two midterm tests and single exam, this format has become known to students as an imperfect trifecta. As this format continues to be observed by students across classes, it becomes clear that university testing needs to change.

Within McMaster University, infrequent heavily-weighted tests have become the standard. Their proponents argue that they offer a pragmatic solution to the demands brought on by an increasing student population.

This seems reasonable considering approximately 26,780 undergraduate students attend McMaster.

Yet, despite a relatively large student body, as many as 62 per cent of undergraduate courses have less than 60 students registered. Of the remaining third, another nine per cent is accounted for by first-year, faculty-core courses, where non-standard assessment methods have already been adopted. Thus, only 29 per cent of McMaster courses have rationale on the grounds of large class sizes for the current evaluative structure.

While the limited time that our professors possess is valuable and should be allocated appropriately, students pay an underreported opportunity cost that is similar in consequence. As students, university is intended to be a time to quench curiosity and inspire potential. This opportunity is contingent on our instructors’ abilities to teach.  

With the recent push by the McMaster Students Union to eliminate evaluations weighted 50 per cent or greater, it seems that a new horizon is bound. However, while removing grade-defining exams will function to ease student anxiety and diversify grade distribution, it does little to correct an inherently flawed system of learning.

Cognitive psychologists have known for decades that proper learning involves the deep and repeated consideration of material. The more you practice retrieval of information, the better your long-term memory will become.

Distributed learning involves learning material over time while interleaved learning involves practicing several units of content in rotation. Science states that adoption of these two learning techniques leads to resilient memory when combined with levels of deep practice such as testing.

For a full-time student, with roughly 62 days of content from five courses compressed into three testing instances per course, the present assessment scheme hardly encourages distributed learning.

Given the current structure, it is not difficult to understand why students cram for major evaluations. It has been shown clearly that cramming behaviour produces improved short-term results when compared to the long-term strategies of distributed and interleaved learning.

While long-term strategies promote lasting memories, a majority of students are hesitant over using them. The current grading structure is unforgiving, and students frequently resort to suboptimal learning techniques given the cost of failure. But as the goal of classes is to foster long-term retention of material, the university should diminish the value of cramming and reward optimal strategies.

To craft an ideal course, one must first break the association between testing and evaluation. After decades of experimentation, testing has been established as the strongest way to induce resilient learning; the average person, however, views constant studying as preferable.

What we need is more testing in university courses. Not only does this greatly improve student performance on final examinations, but also a majority of students claim that they prefer frequent, low-stakes testing in comparison to infrequent, high-stakes testing.

And even better, testing does not only reference closed-book, sit-down evaluations. The evidence for open-book testing, textbook homework, and take-home assignments is overwhelming. Any content that provides students an opportunity to elaborate on their knowledge in a distributed manner will produce worthwhile results.

At this point, there is no question that frequent testing improves learning, as we have seen with the recent success of blended learning. The major challenge lies within the feasibility of adoption. Will instructors and teaching staff take on the extra effort to provide their students with a framework for success? Only future transcripts will tell.  

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By: Mitali Chaudhary

Sometimes you just know a bad midterm mark is coming when you’re in the exam room, mind blank, slowly getting that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you listen to everyone else’s pencils scribbling furiously. Even worse is when you’re blindsided and left stunned at the hands of a subject you studied your heart out for. Either way, getting a bad mark on a midterm is a painful experience that not everyone can simply brush off.

In time, however, it’s entirely possible to bounce back. The best way to start this process is by determining exactly how you prepared for the test and what actions you can take in the future to fill the gaps in your knowledge or steps you can take to ready yourself better for future experiences. If this is done realistically, the reason behind your shortcoming can be picked out and smoothed over, which leads to greater chances of success in the course. Maybe your social hours or casual Internet usage need to be limited or maybe you’re lacking in the organizational department. Whatever the problem may be, once it’s identified, it’s much easier to seek help and set goals to correct it. Fortunately, McMaster University offers everything from counselling to extra help for virtually every course, as well as soft skill workshops for free that can provide support.

It’s also helpful to stay positive and to put the mark into perspective. Although it seems like a big deal at the moment, half a semester still remains and the finals are the real deciding factor of the course grade. It’s therefore much more productive to focus your energy on using the experience as an accurate depiction of what you still need to learn or work on, instead of wallowing over it for a month. Make sure you look at the class average too, it may be that you got a 65 percent and are disappointed by it, but if the class average was a fifty, then I’d say that’s a pretty good mark.

Essentially, to properly bounce back from a botched midterm, a lot of introspection is required, followed by some goal-setting and smart action. This lets the unpleasant event turn into a smudge in your distant memory instead of becoming a large mental stain that constantly intrudes on other thoughts.

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