The Last Question

Every exam I give has the same last question on it. The result has been wonderful, and I think you will agree if you try this technique.

Here’s the last question I give on almost every one of my exams:

Give me your initial impression as to the fairness of this test. Did it cover what you thought it would cover? Was it too long or too short? Was the difficulty what you expected? Feel free to tear this page off, and hand it in later (You can slip it under my door or give it to the Math Office with my name written on it) or turn it in with your test.

This feedback has, over the years, helped me write much better tests. More importantly, the feedback I get from Exam One has helped me to write a better Exam Two, particularly in a new class (like when I, a math professor by training, taught oral and written comp). I’m going to advocate that you try this on your exams, and want to point out why I think this question has worked so well.

1)    Timing. The students see the question right after they’ve finished the test. Before they’ve talked about it to their friends. Well before they’ve seen their grade. I have a consistent baseline. (Almost all of the students who answer this question do it on the test itself, and then some come in a few hours later under my door.)

2)    Scope. The scope of this question is narrow so I get good information instead of broad impressions. I get feedback about one specific test. I could broaden it to “What do you think about the course? What do you think about my teaching in general? What’s your opinion about this University?” and I would get the broad generalizations we get in student evaluations. But because this is a focused question, I get precise answers.

3)    Structure. It starts with the open question about fairness. Students who have a strong point negative point of view will let me know what they think about that! But I also want to hear from the students who aren’t in the “Strongly Agree!” “Strongly Disagree!” camp. By following it up with three sample questions: “Did it cover what you thought it would cover? Was it too long or too short? Was the difficulty what you expected?” they are given ideas what they can think about. And some will just give one-word answers to those three questions – that’s fine. I’m glad to get that information.

4)    Coverage. There are some important things I want to get right. I want to get expectations right. I don’t want the students to be surprised by either the content or the difficulty of a test. Sometimes a test is hard or easy because the topic is hard or easy. I don’t believe in artificially making a test on easy material harder, or making a test on hard material easier. But the students should be prepared going in. Similarly, sometimes content will be on a test that the students would prefer never to see again – I have to make that choice. But the students should know what they are in for. And length – I want to get that right. At this point in my career I usually do, earlier in my career I often didn’t. But the students are the ones taking it. Their opinions on that point are vital to me. And all of that is part of the umbrella of fairness. Students tend to be angriest not when they get a bad grade, but when they believe their bad grade was unfair. And they are right to be angry in that case. I am sad when someone with power over me makes a decision I don’t like. I’m infuriated if I think it is an unfair one. The questions I ask were deliberately chosen to hit on these main aspects of my exams.

There is one more, practical benefit to this question. I feel petty putting it on this list, it wasn’t an effect I expected, and it isn’t why I include the question. But here we go:

5)    Ass-covering. You give a test. A student then complains to you, after it is handed back, that this test was unfair. This no longer happens to me. Even in that required course that students take because they have to. Even with the major (which shall remain nameless) that is notorious for having grade-litigious students. Because they get back their paper, with their grade, and a page on the back where they wrote “This was a fair test.” It isn’t just a “gotcha.” Dr. Catherine DeSoto’s book, “Lies of Omission” cites studies that show that if a person (including you) adopts a belief, even casually, and writes it down, then that belief will become internalized, probably permanently. Assuming that you give fair tests, when a student answers this question, they are cementing this knowledge, and are less likely to change their belief to “unfair” when they see their grade. And if your students are calling your test “unfair” right after taking it – that is really good for you to know.

Seriously – Make a note and try this out! Let me know how it goes!