Adapting Test Design to Make It Work in a Distance Setting

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By: Eric Kalenze

Obviously, no one in education had much time to prepare for the recent moves to virtual schooling. The directives to halt in-person instruction progressed swiftly, and they landed square in the middle of teachers’ grading periods, instructional units, or class projects. For me, the shift to full distance learning comes as my ninth- and tenth-grade ELA classes are at the tail ends of multi-week units. It’s a timing I’m relieved about, frankly, as the hard parts of those units’ teaching and learning are effectively done.

Assessing the learning that happened over those units, though, is another deal entirely. I’ve done a lot formatively throughout the units to inform my planning and my support, but in both grades I was aiming kids toward fairly substantial final exams.

But now with all the distance learning, and with the fact that I can’t be in the room to supervise those tests, are they even really tests? Won’t kids just meet online and use their notes to complete anything I send them? And if they do all that, are my tests even worth giving?

After much twisting and much thought, I decided the answer is absolutely yes: even within the new realities of distance learning, going through with the tests is the right thing to do. In fact, staying the course could even provide a way for students to sharpen some crucial study/preparation habits—and via processes that might actually be preferable to similar work I’d planned for my physical classroom.

To make it work, though, I know the tests I design to be given from a distance can’t be just testing-as-usual. Some additional guides and procedures will have to be established, but I can make this work. Below are a few points I’m following to make testing work, for my students and for myself, in the current distance-learning moment.

Perspective Is Key

The COVID-19 outbreak has people frightened, uncertain, overburdened, and isolated, so I am remaining mindful of the weirdness of the situation, and I’m managing and redistributing my expectations in accord.

I’m not talking about lowering expectations, as I’m never about that. On some things, though, I have to keep the circumstances in mind and just lighten up. I have to get over myself and accept that perfectly replicating my physical classroom’s conditions—especially on a matter like test security—is simply not possible, and then plan accordingly.

To put it another way: with all the income being lost, ways of life being rearranged, and people fearing for the health and safety of their loved ones, I probably shouldn’t work myself into a lather when one of my students thumbs through his copy of Antigone so he can select “Teiresias” over “Eteocles” for a point on my test.

Use Test Design To Keep Conditions Rigorous (…and myself sane)

I can, though, ratchet the challenge level high, get a good read on what my students have learned, and keep my own workload manageable through my test design. Below are some principles I’m abiding by and strategies I’m enacting to do so.

1. Use the Available Tools

My students regularly use Google’s interface and I’m conducting most classroom business through Google Classroom, so I’ll be collecting student output with a Google Form. This will make grading a bit more manageable, as I have worked the form’s settings to log correct answers.

2. “Open-Note Test” Doesn’t Have to Equal “Easy”

I’ve accepted that students will use their notes (and one another) to work on the tests I administer. Still, “open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy.” Here are a few things I’m doing in hopes that students will prepare diligently for, not just coast into, test day.

  • Defining the time of the test window. The Google Form students are expected to complete for their exam will open at a certain time, and no answers will be accepted after a certain time. (I’m providing 90 minutes, considerably longer than usual, but enough time for all, including my IEP students with additional-time accommodations.)
  • Reducing over-reliance on “open-notes.” Within the 90-minute time window, I am designing the point distribution so that students can benefit from using their notes, but also understand that they need to prepare ahead. On one test, which is worth 100 points total, I’ve made sure the majority of the points (55) come through the test’s extended essay and short answer (2-3 sentences) sections. That makes less than half of the test multiple-choice, or notes-reference-able. And from there it’s just math: If each question takes 1-2 minutes of looking in notes to find answers, students will have used their entire allotted time on less than half of the overall test.
  • Communicating the above rationale clearly. I see this as a good way to teach some lessons about habits of preparation and attention, so I plan to start the week with some explicit reminders of the above points. I’ll put these out on my Google Classroom stream, definitely in writing and perhaps via video.

3. Teach, Structure, and Incentivize Retrieval Practice

Finally, I’m using the run-up to these tests as a way to get students preparing through content retrieval. If it’s not an idea you’re familiar with, the short version is that retrieving information from our memories is one of the most proven ways to make information permanent in our memories.

To replace the myriad ways I typically have students retrieve crucial content in my classroom, I’m taking steps like these:

  • Exposing students to the underlying science of retrieval practice with accessible videos like this one, from my friends the Learning Scientists.
  • Via extra credit rewards, encouraging students to prepare through retrieval practice. In my case, I’m offering extra credit to students who write quizzes using their class materials, as well as to students who take the quizzes written by their classmates.

All that said, though, I have to be honest: I have no idea how it will all go. None of us do, really, as highly successful virtual teaching and learning is still much more aspiration than reality for our enterprise.

And as such is true, I’ll stick to my basic classroom principles—and, of course, a genuine acknowledgement of our unique circumstances—and do my best translating them to the new normal. It’s the best any of us can do.

For more, see our Getting Through series including:


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Based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area, Eric Kalenze currently teaches high school and serves as Curriculum and Instruction Lead at Apple Valley’s FIT Academy, plus works with schools/districts as an independent consultant and serves as researchED’s US Ambassador. He is the author of 2019’s What the Academy Taught Us: Improving schools from the bottom-up in a top-down transformation era and 2014’s Education is Upside-Down. Follow Eric on Twitter @erickalenze

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