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It takes 40 minutes for an orchestra of 120 players to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. “How long does it take 60 players to perform a symphony?”
As with many puzzles that can be found online, the answers are wildly different and mostly wrong: one group of people may read too fast and confidently claim the answer is 20 minutes. The second camp argues that half the musicians must put in twice as much effort, so the answer must be 80 minutes.
The third group, however, was stunned and questioned the teacher’s ability to write good questions. “To think that the person asking that question really doesn’t know how bands work!” The Wexford Symphony Orchestra wrote on Twitter.
Longmour acknowledged that it was a tricky question designed to keep students on their toes, echoing a common view among exam staff that such questions force students to read carefully to ensure they will focus on substantive issues later. But do deceptive questions really work as intended?
Andrew Butler, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at Washington University, doesn’t think so. Tough questions, he says, are “unproductive for learning” and can easily backfire. The result: students are confused, test scores are artificially lowered, and students’ understanding of actual knowledge becomes more blurred.
Other research on test design suggests that we are often not just assessing students’ knowledge, but also getting a glimpse into the psychological and cognitive vortexes that disrupt their thinking — an anxiety-inducing high-stakes test can be a barometer of students’ balance, not their knowledge. A well-designed exam is rigorous, inhibits implicit bias, and pays attention to the role that confidence, mentality and anxiety play in the exam. Based on a review of more than a dozen recent studies, here are eight suggestions for creating effective tests.
1. Help students develop a good habit of preparing for exams
A 2017 study revealed that students often overestimate how prepared they are for upcoming exams, which can lead to unexpectedly low performance. Instead of cramming the night before, consider having students develop and show you a study plan that includes effective study strategies, such as self-testing, teaching key concepts to peers, or breaking your study into multiple sessions.
To help deal with test anxiety, researchers recommend setting aside a little time before the test for a simple writing or self-talk exercise — this can boost students’ confidence, remind them of their test-taking strategies and put the test in perspective. For example, in a 2019 study, elementary school students who spent a few minutes before a test “silently speaking words to themselves to encourage their efforts” improved their math scores. In a 2019 study of ninth-graders, researchers found that a simple 10-minute expressive writing activity that redefined test anxiety as “a beneficial, energizing force” led to a halving of course failure rates among disadvantaged students.