The room is silent except for thirty or so sounds of scratching at various paces. Some scratches are going at a furious pace, while some are more relaxed. Still, there’s a certain tension in the air that can be felt from the lack of noise.
“Okay, five minutes left everyone,” the teacher says, and the pace of the noise is picked up even more. It’s the homestretch, where the sounds get even louder and more frantic. One can nearly pick out those who are struggling to finish by the speed of the sounds of the scratches near them, betraying how far back they are.
As you can probably gather, this is the typical experience of being in a room while writing a test (at least, for me). As a science students, I’ve had many chances to write tests, so I’m quite used to the whole procedure. There’s a pent-up energy at the beginning while the students discuss the potential questions on the test, and then everyone files in as if they’re being sent to death row. The test is then written at a furious pace, and then there is always the reminder with a few minutes left in the test where students start getting worried about not finishing the test.
It happens during nearly every test. There always seems to be someone who runs out of time. Often, this happens to multiple people, and it is not a fun feeling at all. As someone who routinely does well on tests and nearly always answers every single question, I am quite frustrated when I cannot get to a question on a test because of time. I feel cheated, because I get marks taken off as if I got a question wrong, when really I did not get a chance to really look at it.
This has got me thinking about the way we make tests and if there are ways to gauge student learning better. To do this, I want to question one of the things we take for granted during tests: question density.
Simply put, I’d define “question density” as the number of questions in a test per unit of time. Basically, it’s the measure of how much time one gets per question on a test.
Then, I’d attempt to calculate the number of minutes one should be taking per question on the test. Obviously, there are difficulties in getting an actual number out of this, since different levels of ability will be capable of doing more or less questions per unit of time.
Nonetheless, then one can take the ratio between these two numbers to find out how much margin a test has. If the number approaches one, the test does not have a lot of margin. As the number tends towards zero, more and more margin is available for the student.
Why is this important? What I’ve found for many of my science and mathematics courses is that there isn’t a lot of margin. This means that the teacher’s perception of how long a test will take mirrors the amount of time allotted for the test.
In general, I’ve found that this leads to worse test scores. I hypothesize that it’s due to the inability to check one’s work, which creates a rise in “stupid” mistakes. I then find it ironic when a teacher goes over a test and comments on how many people made such a silly mistake. In my mind, the answer is clear: they were in a rush, and so didn’t fully reflect on what they were answering.
I’m sure you’ve written a test that was too long, and the teacher basically admitted it afterwards. Fortunately, my teacher bumped everyone’s grades up to make up for the long test, but I would have much rather having a shorter test. While this negatively affected those who didn’t even get to certain questions (as I outlined my frustration for above), it was also surely a cause for silly mistakes in my exam. If the test was shorter, I perhaps wouldn’t have made those mistakes.
This is why margin is so important on tests. It gives students an opportunity to take a deep breath and calm down during the stressful time which is exam writing. By bringing the ratio down, students get more time to think about their answers, which I’m sure we can all agree is a good thing. You don’t need to write questions just to “fill” the test. Instead, the important questions need to be emphasized. If there really is that much content, I’d be of the mind of writing two parts of a test on separate days. This would allow teachers to keep the number of questions they want while still increasing the amount of margin for a test.
Rarely do I see an instance where the margin for a test is low, but I have seen it before. When I was in my astrophysics class in CÉGEP, the final had an amazing amount of margin. I was a very good student in that class, but I finished the test in about half the time, which was one and a half hours out of the three hour exam.
What I loved about the test was that it still asked many questions and had a lot of topics. It didn’t have a million things to do though like other exams where I would have to regularly check the clock. Here, I was able to sit, relax, and really answer the questions to the best of my ability. In my mind, that is what we want to see out of a student.
Margin during tests needs to be factored into the process of test creation because it has such a profound effect on how a student feels during an exam. From personal experience, a test with little margin is an extremely nerve-wracking experience where I am basically on autopilot. This is good for answering concepts in general, but this approach usually misses the finer details and is prone to making silly mistakes. Therefore, I am always happy to see a test with margin.
How much margin is enough? Personally, I love to look over my exam again when I am done in order to check for any small exams. This would mean the margin ratio would be about 0.75, but I think that’s a bit unrealistic. Still, it would be nice if a person in a fifty-five minute test could have about ten minutes to look over their answers, meaning the test should be able to be completed in about forty-five minutes. It may seem like too much wasted time, but I firmly believe students would be able to perform to a level that reflects their actual ability more than the current way tests are usually made.
In the end, packing a test with as many questions as you can during the time of an exam is a good way to have students feel frustrated and make stupid mistakes. On the other hand, by giving a fair amount of margin to the students, they will be able to relax and focus on the work at hand instead of at the ticking clock.
My hope is that the five-minute warning will become one where students are only checking their answers and not where a majority are still furiously writing in order to finish.