When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.
Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.
While there is variation in how they work across departments, universities, and disciplines (including in whether “prelim” and “qualifying” exams are two different things), they often include a single, high stakes assessment of knowledge, perhaps in the form of an oral exam. I think there’s general recognition that this is not good for student stress levels and mental health (and a new paper supports that general impression), but I think we maybe don’t reflect enough on what this form of assessment means for student learning. Frequent testing helps people learn. (Make It Stick is a great book that talks about this.) One important goal of qualifying exams is to ensure that students have learned, mastering the background knowledge required to move forward on their independent research. So, why are they structured in a way that is not in line with best practices for learning?
A key reason is that qualifying exams are in many ways a historical relic. But I think there’s a sense that there’s a tradeoff between rigor and student well-being. I’m sure there are many people who think that they wish qualifying exams weren’t so stressful for students, but that it’s unavoidable. But, rather than “rigor” (whatever that is), we should be focusing on student learning, and there’s no tradeoff between learning and well-being – those would both be supported by having qualifying exams that involve frequent, low stakes assessments.
So, what reasons, other than historical ones, are there to keep qualifying exams that involve a single high stakes assessment such as a comprehensive oral exam? Are there any? The main possibility I can come up with is that the workload would probably be higher if the format was one where students, for example, write a series of reviews on different topics. But, if faculty workload is really the reason for keeping qualifying exams that involve a big, high stakes assessment such as a comprehensive oral exam, we need to explicitly acknowledge and discuss that.
Are there any programs that have really radically changed the way they do qualifying exams? (No, moving it one semester earlier or later is not a radical change.) I’d love to hear about programs (ecology or otherwise) that are doing creative work related to qualifying exams, especially those that have re-evaluated the approach they take based on scholarship related to how we learn.