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Exam Anti-Patterns

There is no such thing as the perfect university exam, but if we agree that its purpose is to give an objective score about an individual’s comprehension of the covered topics, then there is clearly a way to be less wrong when creating exams. This post lists a few DONT’S that can be easily avoided. If you think there is an anti-pattern in this post, you can write me an email and I will add it here.

No past exams #

Clearly, coming up with new good questions every year or semester is hard. So why not ask the same questions in past exams and keep them a secret. Because you can’t keep something secret that you show to many students! Not publishing exams shifts, the most effective preparation from learning and understanding to asking around if anyone remembers the question. This is unfair, random and not measuring comprehension. The defense against it for students is to publish all questions immediately after the exam. Fortunately, the computer science department at KIT, with a few exceptions, is publishing all old exams with good reference solutions. This is great!

Curving exams #

Applying curves to exams, discourages studying together and publishing useful resources. It’s not a good incentive if you get a worse grade if you help out other students. In other course of studies such as law or accounting, people go as far tearing out relevant pages from books in the library. Instead, having useful blogs, git repositories and online tools from students for students, is a better spirit. We want to study together, not against each other.

If the grade distribution is Gaussian, the exam is good, right? #

You put exams in many ways, and will arrive at a Gaussian grade distribution. But exams measuring writing speed, IQ or literal memorization misses the point. Of course, you can expect a reasonable amount at any of them. A better way to design exams is to put in a good mix of basic, advanced and hard questions, by thinking about what should a student be able to do in order to pass the exam, the same for a good student and a very good student.

Open-ended questions with fixed answers #

Asking a question where whole books can be written about and then grading it by expecting a fixed amount of predefined keywords to appear in the answer that is upper bound by a small box to write in, is an anti-pattern. Make clear what you want the student is expected to do, use operators, and think alternative solutions and ways that question might be misunderstood.