Writing Effective Chemistry Tests: Tips from a 20-Year Veteran Tutor

Ah, the life of a chemistry instructor. From the outside, it may seem like it’s all about bubbling test tubes and magical reactions. However, any seasoned chemistry instructor knows the reality: a relentless balancing act between teaching, mentoring, university and community service, and, of course, research.

One of the most daunting tasks for chemistry instructors is crafting the perfect exam. Whether it’s a midterm or the culminating final, writing tests is no easy feat. I should know—I’ve been tutoring for nearly two decades and have seen every type of exam question there is.

Choosing the Right Questions for Your Test

  • Multiple Choice: These questions are standardized, quick to grade, and can cover a broad range of topics. However, it’s worth noting that they might not fully evaluate a student’s understanding or analytical skills.
  • Fill in the Blanks: These are excellent for vocabulary and fundamental knowledge. The drawback? They might not be the best for gauging deep understanding or application.
  • Open-ended Questions: They give students the chance to show off their analytical skills and depth of knowledge. However, they’re more time-consuming to grade and can be subjective.

The Issue of Timing

One common pitfall I’ve observed is instructors writing questions too long after they’ve covered a topic. The more time that passes, the harder it becomes to recall the intricacies and nuances of the material taught. Writing questions immediately after a lecture, or at least during the same week, is crucial. Not only is the content fresh in your mind, but it’s also an optimal time to identify key points to test. Plus, drafting multiple versions or variations ensures you’re well-prepared come exam time.

Building Your Question Bank

Relying solely on publisher-provided question banks can be a gamble. They can be inconsistent in quality and might not align with your unique teaching style or the specific material you’ve covered. Instead, consider creating a unique question bank. Over time, this becomes an invaluable resource. You can reuse questions, with slight modifications, ensuring a continuity of assessment style. It also adds a personal touch that makes your exams distinctly yours.

Considering the ACS Exams

For those in ACS-accredited institutions, the ACS standardized final exam is familiar territory. While this type of exam can simplify the end-of-term process, it’s essential to remember that they are exclusively multiple-choice. If you’re prepping students for an ACS final, try to emulate the style of those questions in your midterms. Consistency helps students adapt and succeed.

Tests as Learning Opportunities

Remember, exams aren’t just evaluation tools. They’re unique learning opportunities. Use them to reinforce key concepts and to help students develop essential problem-solving skills. While it’s okay to challenge students, introducing completely alien material can be counterproductive—unless, of course, you’re emphasizing knowledge transfer and specifically testing for it.

Swift & Informative Grading

A delayed grade can be as useful as no grade at all. Timely feedback ensures students can learn from their mistakes and solidify concepts before moving on. Aim for swift, comprehensive grading, with clear comments that guide students towards understanding.

Final Thoughts

After nearly two decades in the tutoring world, I’ve seen it all. And trust me, a well-crafted test can be the difference between a student merely passing and truly excelling. So, as you dive into test creation, remember to keep it timely, consistent, and always with the student’s learning in mind. And hey, maybe throw in an ‘easy’ question or two – everyone needs a little boost now and then!

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