No. 37 • 2021-06-28

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No More Tests

It looks like most schools and colleges will be returning to fully in-person classrooms this Fall. 15 months of remote learning has been, more often than not, frustrating and exhausting, but also illuminating. The key question is will we take any practical learnings from those experiences back into the classroom with us, or will we simply revert to former pre-pandemic norms?  I will try to tackle some of those questions over a series of posts this summer.

Since April 2020, I’ve taught 4 classes remotely, and I’m pleased to report I offered exactly zero tests and quizzes. How do I know if my students learned anything? Rather than 1 or 2 high stakes exams per term, almost all my assignments were projects, large and small. Full disclosure: In recent years, I haven’t typically given many exams and quizzes (though still a few), so I was pre-disposed towards this approach.

It’s not because I’m worried about cheating… In fact, I believe concerns over cheating have been overblown. Organizations’ use of “nanny” software to prevent cheating has done a terrible disservice to learning (e.g., Dartmouth Medical School’s “scandal” where they’ve had to fully retract and apologize for accusations of cheating). Not only do they convey to students a disturbing lack of trust, such systems betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the technology (and promote unrealistic expectations of what’s possible). Furthermore, it’s a classic case of forcing a square peg into a round hole: the online medium (the very nature of which is about open access to information and resources) is simply not well-suited to the traditional “closed book” exam.

Whether in-person or online, exams unfairly advantage some students. Many (through friends, siblings, social groups, etc.) have access to “exam books”, collections of previous tests & problems from the course and professors, while other students (particularly first-gen college students) are unaware these exist. Clearly, those with access to prior examples have a fundamental advantage over those without. It’s impossible to control what’s out there and quite difficult (and time consuming) to come up with entirely new exam questions for the same course material. Thus, exams may not be an assessment of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge they’ve learned, but rather their exposure to similar questions.

I believe asking students to apply and demonstrate their learning through projects offers a better assessment of their understanding of course concepts. There’s no singular “right’ answer, so it’s never a question of rote memorization or “cookie cutter” work. In a well-crafted project assignment, students can demonstrate competency, but also create and express their work in their own ways, emphasizing their own perspectives and interests. Good projects remain relevant year after year, so they don’t need to be changed as often as exam questions. And reviewing prior examples is not detrimental or “cheating”, but actually helpful. Current students can learn from and be inspired by previous years’ projects, and they still have to do the work to create their own successful project.

In my Applied Digital Signal Processing class (for undergraduate seniors), for several years we’ve had a final project to implement an audio compression system (like mp3). This also worked well for this year’s online class. Each time, I give out “prizes” to the best performing systems, following established performance criteria (amount of compression, sound quality, compute time, etc.). Our big change this year was to recast the other assessments (a midterm exam and problem sets) into a series of weekly “labs” (mini-projects) that built more coherently towards the final project. Going online freed us from the prior materials, to reimagine an entirely project-based course. The final project results were similar to previous years and student feedback was (very) positive. I intend to use this framework for future versions of the class, whether online or in person.

First-Year Engineering Design (my Spring 2021 class) focuses on student-proposed design projects, supported by other deliverables (research, design schematics, parts lists, reports, presentations, etc.). This year, rather than final project presentations, which would have been tedious over Zoom, each group created a “Kickstarter”-style video, highlighting the objective, design, and function of their projects. We first had them make a short “project teaser” video midway through the term, to develop experience and obtain feedback. These videos opened the door to all kinds of creativity (both in terms of the projects and their films), but also kept the presentations focused. Our final meeting was a “film festival”, where the entire class watched and judged all of the group videos, with prizes for those receiving the highest ratings. I believe the video presentation format worked really well, and is another aspect I’ll incorporate in future versions of the class, whether in-person or online.

I think one of the greatest challenges in education is understanding how to apply concepts learned in one class more broadly, and I believe well-designed project assignments are one way we can better train our students for the future. In the workforce, how often do you take an exam? Now, how often do you create or participate in a project (a report, a presentation, a design, a program, etc.)? There is a long history to project-based learning, but my online teaching experiences have inspired me to completely eliminate exams and quizzes from my future courses. I understand this may not be the best fit for all classes, but I also believe there are many more classes than not where a project or collection of synthesis activities would be more effective for learning, leading to greater retention, application, and creativity. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Tech As Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium [National Endowment for the Arts] A virtual event to discuss a new NEA report about the creative ecosystem existing at the intersection of arts and technology, with presentations from prominent arts funders and artist-technologist pairs (tomorrow, Tue 6/29, free registration).
  • Songbird [Stay At Home Choir] The latest from the massive online choir, covering the Fleetwood Mac classic. This one includes over 1400 singers in collaboration with The King’s Singers.
  • Zoom Love Story [Stanford Fleet Street Singers] New video (and Taylor Swift tribute) from my former group. Romance still blooms in college classrooms (or not)… even on Zoom 😉 
  • Piano Piece Based on the Fibonacci Sequence [Peter Bence] A composition (and virtuoso performance) inspired by the mathematical sequence where each entry is the sum of the previous 2 numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.), by YouTube superstar pianist, Peter Bence.

What I’m creating…

My new podcast with Melinda Steffy will be launching next week! Here are some members of Philly’s creative community, we’ll be interviewing:

  • Natalie Nixon, author & creativity strategist
  • ELLECT (Steve Tyson), artist & hip-hop educator
  • David Bradley, theater director & producer
  • And more!

Check the podcast page next week for info to subscribe!

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