Common Exams as Prompts for Improvement

November 14, 2008

Glendale Community College’s mathematics program, in 2000, instituted a common final examination for all sections of pre-collegiate algebra. The department produces tabularized information after each examination in order to show, among other things, the dropout rate and mean GPA for each class, as well as the performance of each class (properly coded to ensure anonymity) on the overall test and on subtopics.

The faculty as a whole discuss topical areas in which students appear to be learning well and those they are still struggling with. Individual instructors examine the performance on the test of their own students in various ways that reveal important aspects of their teaching practice and grading standards. For example, instructors whose A and B students do relatively poorly on the final examination must ask themselves whether their standards are too lax. Instructors whose C students perform well on the test must ask themselves if their standards are unrealistically high. The entire project stimulates faculty discussion and reflection in ways that did not occur before.

Additionally, as participants in this process testify, the process of developing and coming to consensus on an assessment framework, along with the development of exercises and a scoring rubric, all tend to get faculty on the same page about what is important for students to know and be able to do. Instructors who entertain idiosyncratic notions about grading or essential content must defend their ideas to their colleagues in an open forum where departmental objectives and disciplinary considerations are the reference standards. Glendale’s experience with the common examination nicely illustrates its power to encourage honest discussion about the appropriate weight to be given to effort over outcome, to growth over absolute level of achievement, to test performance over class participation-crucial considerations in a commitment, like SPECC’s, to documenting improvement over time.

Yet Glendale enjoys an additional benefit that in its long-term effects may prove to be more important than all the rest. It is exemplified in how the math faculty use test results in professional development. Noting that some instructors’ students repeatedly performed well above average on the examinations or on particular topical areas, the department began a program in which faculty observe these highly effective instructors in action. In this way, the Glendale experience points to another important lesson about impact: while improvements in student learning are the bottom line, they are often wrapped up in other kinds of impact that are hard to untangle. Indeed, the experience at Glendale and many other SPECC campuses suggests that faculty learning may be the single most important variable in improving student learning. In today’s accountability culture, this is a point that can get left behind, and it is worth hammering home. Student learning matters; of course one wants to see an upward trajectory in student success. But faculty learning matters as well. And on a healthy campus, the two work together. (41)

Adapted from Basic Skills for Complex Lives: Designing for Learning in the Community College. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 2008. Strengthening Pre-Collegiate Education in the Community Colleges.

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