When thinking about how to adjust Intro Bio for the realities of Fall 2020 teaching, we made a few changes to the course. One major change is that the class is now fully flipped — the students watch asynchronous lectures on their own (we made these using lecture recordings from previous semesters, which had the advantage of having responses to questions previous students asked when they first learned the material) and the synchronous (but recorded for asynchronous viewing if needed) sessions are used for “active learning sessions” where we work through old exam problems and activities to help students organize information (e.g., a table comparing and contrasting gene flow and genetic drift). I think the active learning sessions have been really helpful for student learning, and all of the student feedback about them has been positive. They love the active learning sessions! But that’s not the focus of this post.
The focus of this post is another change we made: moving to more frequent exams. In previous semesters, students had two low stakes quizzes a week, and four high stakes exams across the semester. (The four exams together were worth ~75% of the final grade.) This year, students had one low stakes quiz a week, and six exams. The six exams together are worth about the same amount as last year’s exams — ~76% of the final grade — so each exam on its own is lower stakes (while admittedly still not trivial!), which is part of inclusive course design. We had several reasons for wanting to give six exams vs. four, including:
- By lowering the stakes on each exam, we hoped that a student illness or any other life event or disruption would have less of an impact on how the student did in the course overall.
- By lowering the stakes on each exam, we hoped it would reduce exam anxiety and the temptation to cheat (we did other things to try to reduce these two things, too).
- Having six exams meant we could down-weight the two lowest exams and up-weight the two highest (as opposed to what we did with four exams, which was to down-weight just the one lowest and up-weight just the one highest).*
- Each exam could be shorter and, unless a student had accommodations that gave them extra time, meant the exams could fit in the normal class period, rather than being in the evening.
- Students would get feedback on their study strategies and preparation earlier in the semester and more often.
At the beginning of the semester, I had the impression that students mostly seemed to like that we were going to have six exams, but I didn’t have a great sample. Our first exam was in week 3, and exams 2, 3, 4, and 5 were in weeks 5, 7, 9, and 11, respectively. It turns out that fitting in six exams in the semester makes for a schedule that is kind of intense.
This intensity was definitely felt by the instructional team. The point that seemed the most ridiculous to me was when, on the same day, I was giving exam 3, entering exam 4 questions into Canvas so that exam 4 could be vetted, and writing exam 5 questions. It was a lot.
As my co-instructor, Cindee Giffen, and I discussed it, we realized we didn’t really have a good sense of how students felt about the number of exams. Did they like having 6? Did it feel like too much? What would they do if they were in charge and we were just starting the semester?
So, when we released exam 5 grades, we also included a survey (with students getting an extra credit point if they filled out the survey, to incentivize participation). I was surprised by the responses, and figured they might be of broader interest, so I’m sharing the results here. (414 students responded to the survey.)
Here are the key results:
At the beginning of the semester, students mostly thought 6 exams would be a good thing (41%) or weren’t sure whether it would be good or bad (41%). Only 19% thought 6 exams would be a bad thing.
How did those views change over time?
A) 68% of students who thought they would like six exams at the beginning of the semester felt the same after five exams (green part of left bar in figure below); equal numbers liked six exams more (14%; orange part of left bar in figure below) and less (14%; gray part of left bar in figure below).
B) Students who thought they would not like six exams at the beginning of the semester were more mixed after five exams. 39% said they were now even less in favor of six exams (gray part of middle bar in figure below). 31% said they were now more in favor of six exams (middle bar, orange), and 24% felt the same (middle bar, green) as they did at the start.
C) Of students who weren’t sure at the beginning of the semester (right bar in figure below), 43% still weren’t sure after five exams (green) plus 6% were not sure if their feelings changed (blue); 30% were now less in favor of six exams (gray), and 21% were now more in favor of six exams (orange).
After 5 exams, about half of students felt 4 exams would be much worse (19%) or a little worse (32%) than 6 exams. 9% said it wouldn’t make a different and 5% weren’t sure. A bit over a third of the class said 4 exams would be much better (11%) or a little better (24%) than 6 exams.
When asked how many exams they would prefer to have if they were to retake the course, the most common response was 6 (44%), followed by 5 (28%), then 4 (20%), with 8% saying they weren’t sure.
So, overall, they seemed to prefer having more than 4 exams, even without the benefit of distance from the intensity of the frequent exams. I was definitely surprised that the most common answer was preferring 6 exams! I was not surprised that there was variation in the opinions (sometimes strong variation!) One thing that is abundantly clear when teaching a class this size is that there is no strategy that is best for all students.
What are some of the things they liked about 6 exams?
We included some options of things we thought were upsides of 6 exams, and also gave the option of them entering their own answers. I haven’t had a chance to go through the free responses yet, but here are the percentages that chose the options we gave them:
- Ability to upweight & downweight two exams (93%)
- Lower stakes on each exam (81%)
- Exams during class time rather than in the evening (75%)
- 80 minute exam vs. 120 minute exam (67%)
- 6 exams helped me to stay on top of the material (51%)
- Feedback on study strategies earlier in the semester (36%)
- 6 exams is less stressful. (34%)
An option that I forgot to include but should have is that there was less material to focus on for each exam. The exams were semi-cumulative (exam 2 built on exam 1, exam 3 built on exams 1 & 2, but then we reset and exam 4 focused on just unit 4 material). In conversations with students, they have said that being able to focus in on just four lectures was helpful for studying. I also think that was helpful for them.
What are some of the things they disliked about 6 exams?
Here are the percentages that chose the options we gave them:
- If I got a little behind, I didn’t have as much time to catch up (73%)
- Less time to learn and synthesize information (68%)
- 6 exams is more stressful (47%)
- I’d prefer fewer exam days, even if that means each exam is higher stakes (28%)
- I’d prefer evening exams (6%)
Something I didn’t think to include but that has come up in discussions with students is that, to do six exams, we need the exams to be done via Canvas, rather than as printed exams done in person. Not being able to easily mark up the exam is definitely a drawback of exams taken digitally (and I wonder about inequities that result from this — having a tablet or easy access to a printer probably helps a lot).
Based on all this, what would I do if I was starting the semester over again?
Probably 6 exams, but 5 would be tempting, to try to have it feel like there was a little more time to catch up on things. I think that would have especially helped students around exam 5, but some of the problem there was that there were major covid-related changes around then (including a shift to mostly remote classes, with many students moving around the same time). So, a little more time would have helped some students then….or, alternatively, it might have meant that the exam that came at a particularly hard time was worth more of their final grade.
I also still haven’t decided what I think would be best once we’re able to do things in person again. There are some things I really like about online exams (including the ability to offer them during class time and to give more exams), but there were also definitely downsides (including that most students were taking them on screens, which made things like phylogenies and pedigrees much harder). So, I’m not sure what would make the most sense. But it definitely is useful to know that, overall, students prefer having more than four exams!**
Have you tried different numbers of exams? Did you also find there were tradeoffs? How are you balancing them? I’d love to hear thoughts from others in the comments!
*This semester, each exam is out of 80 points. I will take the two lowest exam grades and rescale them to be out of 65 points, and take the two highest exam grades and rescale them to be out of 95 points. There was one year when we dropped the lowest exam, but that had the unfortunate effect of having students who were happy with their grade heading in to the last unit check out for that unit, so, since then, we’ve down-weighted rather than dropping.
**Someone asked me if I have considered not giving any exams. I have, but can’t really figure out how to make a class like this work with no exams.