I’ve set lecture planning to one side for a week or so while I tackle the growing mound of exam style questions that need producing. That’s pretty hard going really and should inspire some good reflections on what has been taught in a course and, with a pinch of honesty, some reflections on how well it has been taught or how well the students seem to have engaged with the material.

I hate writing exam questions before I have taught a given course. It isn’t present in my head in the same way before I teach it. I haven’t refreshed my memory of the lecture materials, the supporting activities and the like. If it is a new prep, it is almost excruciatingly difficult to assess first time around without some sense of how the material goes across. There is some comfort in exam papers with choice of questions and I’m glad we have them in 2nd and 3rd year.

Our external examiners require us to mark questions as seen or unseen, recall or problem solving, familiar or unfamiliar problem type. That creates a hierarchy of questions. Seen, recall is the most basic question and may be a straightforward way of indicating if a student meets basic ILOs. Those questions tend to start with terms like ‘state’, ‘define’ or perhaps ‘describe’ or ‘draw’. Recall can progress though to something akin to problem solving when ‘compare’ or ‘contrast are brought in – that usually involves additional synthesis of the information over simply regurgitating it on the page. The word ‘critically’ before compare or contrast ups the ante even more, but that may still be a previously seen critique.

Unseen, unfamiliar problem solving is the hardest and should allow the student to apply their subject knowledge and problem solving experiences both in the topic and more broadly to tackle something novel to them. It’s usually particularly difficult to set questions of this type and they really set your mind going with nagging doubts about whether the question is do-able. Again, choice in a paper does help a little, but that may provide a convenient escape route for students wishing to avoid challenging questions if there are more strategically sensible options available. I don’t especially blame students for making strategic decisions when working towards an exam, but it would be better if all questions were equally achievable and picking questions was left to whim not calculation of which bit they would do best on. Of course there are areas of chemistry that some will always feel more confident in.

It is incredibly difficult to set one 25 mark question that includes all of this, that includes some progression from recall through to a decent problem solving part. I’m reminded of crossword puzzles whenever I have to set exam papers – I want a few easy clues to hook me into the puzzle and want to continue. Then I need a few clues that take some effort to solve but increase my general sense of satisfaction with the puzzle. Finally, there will always be a couple of clues that really challenge me and make me think hard. If I get those, I usually feel pretty damn smart. If I don’t (which happens more frequently), I feel pretty frustrated. The important thing is that I don’t regard my frustration as an inability to do crosswords, I just couldn’t do those clues. And it is equally important for students to move away from thinking that they cannot ‘do’ exams if they obtain lower marks.It helps to see them as opportunities to show off progress and development as chemists.

Whether exams are appropriate are not…well, that’s another post entirely!