No exams, learning-based outcomes

I no longer teach any courses with exams. The last one was my introductory course, Principles of Biological Anthropology, which has now gone to weekly quizzes and lab assignments. Sometimes when I tell other professors this, they react with shock. An introductory course with no exams?

I find that the students stay more consistently prepared for class, have higher attendance, and report better learning by having short weekly evaluations instead of a few high-stakes exams. I believe they are learning better, but that’s difficult to assess objectively, given that the course changes to some extent every semester. So, I thought it worth linking and pointing out some recent research that indicates that students do have better learning outcomes with repeated short practice and frequent in-class evaluations. This strategy has become known as “in-class structure and active learning” and has become prominent lately as an approach to physics undergraduate education. But Scott Freeman and colleagues Freeman:structure:2011 showed last year that this strategy also boosts learning outcomes in introductory biology. In a separate study, first-authored by David Haak with Freeman and others Haak:structure:2011, the approach has been shown to reduce the “achievement gap” between minority and non-minority students in introductory biology.

These studies were carried out in a setting where exams were retained as a common means of evaluating courses from different semesters with different interventions. Effort that students spend studying for exams above and beyond the in-class active evaluations will influence their outcomes, in ways that are different from my course. I have moved the stakes from the long-term exam to the short-term evaluation instruments. One benefit is greater classroom time for more material and interactions with students. I have added weekly in-class evaluations, and I have not subtracted any classroom time from instruction.

Anyway, I will keep updating as I go. My new position as HHMI Faculty Fellow has me thinking a lot about how teaching interventions can impact students’ success in later courses. With my introductory course, I want to make sure students have the best preparation for later courses, as well as giving them knowledge about genetics that will be increasingly important to healthcare decisions in the next decade.