Writing in Test Situations

by Harmony Button

“We could improve our use of exams by taking four basic actions: 1. teaching students how to write essay exams, 2. building in more opportunities for process into the exam setting, 3. improving the focus and clarity of our exam questions, and 4. establishing more consistent grading criteria and improving grading methods to improve reliability.”  — John Bean, Engaging Ideas

As you write and plan for your final exams, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind on the use of writing prompts in high-stakes exams.


The Thinking:

Final exams are stressful for most students, often disproportionately so. Warning: this is purely anecdotal evidence but from my conversations with students, it seems like they tend to stress over final exams at a level that doesn’t correspond to the possible impact on their grade.  If both a final exam and a final paper / project are each worth 15% of their total grade, the student often experiences greater anxiety over the exam, rather than the paper or project. If anyone has read any studies about the differences between testing stress and project stress in an end-of-term environment, I’d love to hear it, but my general impression is that comprehensive projects that come to a head over the course of several weeks are just not as panic-inducing as sitting down in a silent room filled with pencil-biting peers and facing a timed, cumulative exam.  

But here’s the point: students are more likely to compromise their academic integrity when they feel the stakes of the test are high and the possibility of acquiring answers is relatively easy, whether it is premeditated (such as smuggling in notes or working out a system of sharing information with a partner) or spontaneous (such as glancing at another student’s paper “just to check” the answers). One aspect of an “un-cheatable” test is one the use of written responses, rather than multiple choice, matching, or other select-the-answer options. (See, Cheating Lessons). 

As we all know, however, written responses on tests are incredibly time consuming to grade, so we often avoid these questions in pursuit of sanity and self-preservation as we contemplate the grading crunch from fall to winter term. Here are a couple of reasons you should consider building in more writing-based exam questions this term:

1. Well-designed writing questions can ask students to simultaneously demonstrate and synthesize content knowledge: students have to prove they can know the significance of the information, which quickly helps teachers separate out the students who have mastered the material from the students who have memorized the information.

2. Writing takes time to create as well as to grade: in terms of your grading, you should remember that although grading MC questions feels fast, students also move through these questions quickly. While grading writing is quite time intensive, it takes a lot more time for a student to write it (ideally) than for you to grade it, so the student / teacher work ratio is actually closer to the MC questions than it feels like… although the effort and attention required in evaluating these writing samples is undoubtedly much higher than the mindless grading of matching questions.  

3. While many students are daunted by writing questions, these questions can also be more forgiving than more quantitative evaluations: a student has the chance to work their way through a problem, to get partial credit, or to justify their thinking in a writing prompt. Students should all look at the writing portions of their exams as opportunities to demonstrate their thinking processes, not just to regurgitate rehearsed responses.


The Application:

The problem with essay exams is that they frame the writing process as a performance: asking students to think and compose under pressure is less than likely to evoke their best writing. Timed writing exercises are particularly anxiety-provoking for nervous writers, and as the difficulty of the thinking (as well as the stakes of the assignment) rises, the “quality” of the writing (in terms of the mechanics and clarity of the writing) often goes downhill.


Here are a couple ways to build writing into an exam so that even nervous writers can stay on course and use it as a learning (as well as performative) experience:

1. Build in short answer questions that ask students to justify or explain answers that they gave on more quantitative questions: alternate the quantitative question with the “so what” question.

2. Scaffold the writing process, even in an exam setting. Break the task down into stages, and give credit for each stage. Depending on how much brainstorming or mind-mapping your students are comfortable with, you can give credit for 5 minutes of notes / brainstorming, or you can just scaffold thinking with somewhat leading questions. For example: A. List three reasons why the Ishkabibbles became farmers. B. How did farming practices impact political developments in the Ishkabibble empire? C. Explain the failure of the Ishkabibble empire as compared to the relative stability of their successors, the Whosits.

3. Improve the clarity of your questions: troubleshoot your writing prompts by running them by your colleagues, so you can be confident that you’re really asking what you mean to ask. Try to consolidate prompts to ask one good question, rather than firing off a slew of questions that are intended to spark ideas. [Hint: if you want to ask leading questions, consider framing them in the pre-writing prompts, rather than in the essay question, itself otherwise, students sometimes see all the questions as a checklist and they try to “do” all the questions, which results in a terribly disjointed essay].

4. Set context for questions: define an audience, even in an exam situation. Explaining a concept to someone in particular may help ground some nervous writers.

5. Use exam writing as the basis of a revision assignment once you return a graded exam, ask students to re-write their least effective written response… or, ask them to expand on it in a new way, or relate it to a new lesson.

6. Built-in self-reflection in the final exam format never hurts and it can really help you as a teacher to gauge your students’ attitudes toward the exam.


The Habit:

Writing in exam situations is an odd, awkward kind of writing that often seems counter-intuitive to everything we know about the writing process (that it is best when done in communities, that it requires multiple drafts, that it is a learning tool as well as means of performance) but, it is a commonly required skill that will serve students well. If we can talk to students about the challenges and opportunities of timed writing tests, we can help them navigate the perils.

As far as grading exam writing goes, teachers should be really wary of their own biases: by the end of the term, we tend to be pretty heavily influenced by what we expect to see from a specific student, and this bias creeps into our evaluation of their exam writing. Grading with a short list or rubric of what you’re looking for in the writing helps to eliminate grading bias, as does the practice of grading blindly (don’t look at the student name). This clear list of your goals and priorities for the writing also helps expedite the grading process, and teachers are less likely to get hung up on mechanical details such as poor handwriting or spelling (which can disproportionately influence our expectations of overall quality of the writing).

Asking students to write during their final exams promotes the kind of end-of-term synthesis that we hope for in all disciplines. Expressing written ideas in a timed testing situation is skill that we value, even as we acknowledge the pitfalls and challenges of this task.  


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