Going exam-free

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Are you preparing for the new semester? Are you sitting in the position of academic freedom guaranteed by tenure?

Here’s what you might consider to be a radical suggestion, though it’s fully reasonable: Ditch exams this semester.

That’s right. Just don’t have exams. Assign grades using other methods.

Some folks think of exams as a necessary evil. But maybe they are actually not necessary?

What’s the use of exams? In theory, they allow you to assess student learning or student performance so that you can give them a grade. And theoretically they provide an incentive for students to learn. In practice, for most of us, exams are a poor extrinsic motivator that creates more fear than curiosity, and they don’t assess so much what students learned but rather what hoops they have been trained to jump through. What if we put the energy that we put into making and grading exams, and assuaging student concerns about exams, and use this to build classroom activities that might increase intrinsic motivation? That we find ways to evaluate student performance that create less stress for students, because this stress gets in the way of learning?

Perhaps instead of grading, ungrade. Here is a great article about How To Ungrade by Jesse Stommel.

At some institutions and in some fields, exams are actually required. In Chemistry, for example, I suspect exams a part of ACS accreditation. It might just be a matter of social pressure. However, in the biology programs I’m most familiar with, if a tenured professor wanted to stop giving exams, they could. There would be no university rule or chair or dean who could require them to do so.

Consider contract grading. Or specifications/standards-based grading. Or just using a series of more frequent shorter assessments.

Anyway, I’m not saying this is an idea that will work for you. Just throwing out there as something to consider.

6 thoughts on “Going exam-free

  1. Dear Terry,
    I have heard from many colleagues that two-stage exams are less stressful and more useful for increasing learning gains and higher level thinking on the subject. Do you think that would make a viable alternative to ditching the exams altogether?

    • I’m not directly familiar with two-stage exams, so I wouldn’t be one to credibly remark on this that much. But it would create an opportunity for focused inquiry and less freaking out, so that sounds like a win.

  2. I’ve been moving to exam-free in my classes for a few years now. I say “moving to” because I’ve figured out ways this works for my 200 and 300 level classes, but haven’t yet developed it for the intro class. I’ve been really happy with the decrease in stress and the increase in engagement with the material. In teaching ecology, the grade is based on keeping up with the weekly reading/assigned low stakes quizzes, lab and field exercises, and a final field experiment.

  3. I stopped giving exams decades ago. The students hated taking them, I hated giving up a class period that I could use for other things, and I hated grading them. How is this good for anyone? One year, I decided to give my exam questions as homework problems every two weeks or so to coincide better with the lectures. The class grades increased by about 10 points. Nothing I have ever done has improved student performance that much. I didn’t resent grading as much because it was spread out and I was able to catch confusion over some points from my lectures sooner and not let it fester. The students were more engaged in the questions, came to my office hours better prepared, and were just better in the class. If you are having doubts about exams, try this easy experiment and see what you find. I have not given an exam since and haven’t looked back.

  4. I’ve been using specifications grading in my biology courses for a year now. There have been a few hiccups along the way (and exams are still a part of the grade), but the last time around I got considerably more “buy in” than before, and my impression is that it’s accomplishing many of the goals I hoped it would (for me, and for my students).

  5. I’d love to eliminate exams. (At present they count for 22% of my students’ grade.) My dilemma: how else to identify the students who are not doing their own homework.

    I’m teaching computer programming languages to classes of over a hundred students.

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