Distance learning will solve our testing crisis

The distance model means better testing if teachers embrace it

What makes a good test? It seems obvious, but a test must actually measure what it was intended to measure. This is called test “validity,” according to Professional Testing , and is key to the design of useful exams.

But many traditional tests, especially multiple-choice exams, have low validity if the intention is to actually measure how much the student has learned. Even worse, multiple choice questions train students to recall information and are actually detrimental to their critical thinking skills, according to Forbes.

Changes in the way we test are long overdue, but there has been no pressing need to make them. Surprisingly, distance learning may be just the impetus we need.

Distance learning raises concerns about the integrity of exams by increasing the potential for two different types of cheating: accessing information and collaborating with classmates.

Outside of a classroom environment, teachers have little control over the conditions under which students take exams. Some teachers may focus on re-creating an environment wherein they can control their students and eliminate cheating.

The problem with making cheating impossible is that it can’t be. Even in a classroom environment cheating is possible. By telling students that they may not use their notes, teachers punish students for not cheating by giving those who cheat an advantage.

So, in order to keep tests fair, they must be open-book. So, what else can teachers do to limit students?

The biggest tool that teachers have is time. You can’t cheat a time limit. Additionally, those who do cheat and, for example, text a friend, have to pay the price in time. They would need to wait for another student, who is also pressed for time, to respond.

This isn’t a fix to cheating. People will still have access to friends, their books and the internet. The fix to cheating lies in the way we test: teachers should leave behind traditional memorization-based testing in favor of critical thinking exams (a common type of critical thinking exam is an essay, but more exist).

Critical thinking exams fix a lot of issues with cheating. The first type of cheating, accessing information, isn’t eliminated, but it is fixed – who cares if a student looks up information? They aren’t being graded on rote memorization; they’re being graded on their ability to work with information – the real sign that they have learned from the class.

The second type of cheating, collaborating with peers, can be fixed with plagiarism software. Teachers can’t check if people shared multiple-choice answers – after all, these are supposed to be the same. But, teachers can easily check to see if people share their answers to critical thinking exams, because students are not supposed to get as close as they can to the “right answer.” They are supposed to demonstrate their understanding of topics by communicating original ideas.

But, recall is important – students should be rewarded for committing information to memory, right? Yes! And critical thinking exams do reward students for committing material to memory. Knowing the information allows you to make connections about the information in your head, making coming up with ideas easier. 

Critical thinking exams also test the right kind of memory – long-term memory. The benefits described above only work for students with a real working knowledge of concepts. Cramming won’t benefit students at all on a critical thinking exam, but it will on a multiple-choice exam.

It might seem like this technique can only be applied to English, history and science – not math. Math may seem too formulaic for this technique. But really, it can absolutely be applied in math classes. As mentioned earlier, essay questions are not the only form of critical thinking exams.

In math classes, teachers can use proofs, the way students show work and questions asking students to explain how they arrived at answers. Math teachers should also ask word problems and questions that require students not only to know what they are doing, but to understand why they are doing it.

As it turns out, some of the changes forced on teachers by distance learning are actually very positive changes. Cramming is no longer rewarded. Test validity is increased. Students no longer have to worry about forgetting small details and can focus on actually understanding the material. 

And, hopefully, these changes will stay in place long after we’re back on campus.