Friday, February 24, 2006

Physics Exams

I was reading this post at Cosmic Variance about a E-M test that one of the authors gave recently. The test seems interesting, and I think he did a good job trying to match it to his students' abilities and time constraints (certainly caring at all about that is a step above many physics professors).

What I found more interesting, though was the discussion in the comments about open/closed book tests. There are certain conventional wisdoms that exist in the physics world about these types of tests. For example:

-Open book tests are generally a bit harder, because the professor knows you have a book.
-Closed book tests prepare you well for graduate school, because you really have to know the material.
-Closed book tests ignore the reality of life after school, when no book is closed.
-Closed book tests make the student focus more on thinking about the problem as opposed to searching through the book for an answer.

Certainly, there are more, and it really gets complicated when you weave in the take-home vs. in-class dichotomy as well.

We all carry this stuff around, because I bet things like this have been the conventional wisdom for at least 100+ years in physics (or at least since teaching classes has become more important than individula mentorship/apprenticeship in entering the field). However, we're physicsts/astronomers, not psychometricians. I wonder how much is real, and how much isn't. We take into the course and tests certain beliefs as teachers and "defenders of the sanctity of the field" (and there's nothing wrong with that), but someone who is a disinterested observer may see something very different. I also imagine that since more and more physics/astronomy students (even graduate students) are no longer ending up as physicists or astronomers, the outcomes one would look for after system of testing are significantly more varied than they were 30 years ago. I think that, although it would be incredibly hard to do, investigating the teaching practices and their outcomes in student achievement and success, in upper level science courses would be quite an interesting project.


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