As of now I enforce a strict policy on myself that I tell my students about on the first day of classes: there will never be a question on one of my exams that they have not seen at least a week ahead of time. (This goes even for multiple choice questions, though they do not get the answers. The one exception is for a course that deals primarily in skill-building (like logic) rather than content. For these classes I do not provide actual questions but rather model, practice questions.) There is some evidence that this policy benefits the students, but more and more I'm wondering if it isn't a moral requirement to have such a policy.
First of all, a couple of points about how having all questions available a week ahead of time has affected my classes:
- Students report a great deal of relief in anxiety compared to their other courses, and in particular their other philosophy courses.
- Students do not report that they believe my courses are any easier than other philosophy courses and I've gained a reputation of "challenging but fair" instead.
- On many evaluations and in many conversations, students report gratitude for the "study guide" (which I have to remind them is not a "guide" but the actual questions on the exam).
- I have not received a single complaint about the "fairness" of an exam in the 3-4 years I've been using this policy.
- I have noticed no evidence that students simply replicate old answers to questions that have received high marks (though this may be because I constantly change questions and am fairly new at my university).
- If I haven't formally created a rubric for grading when I write up the questions, I easily have one in my mind after answering students' questions about the exam questions.
And what I think are the most interesting two:
- Exam scores, on average, have stayed the same or ticked up a little bit (it's a little hard to tell as my classes sizes vary considerably and I didn't keep good data before the policy)
- The average remains the same, but this is an artifact of an increased number of higher grades and lower grades. So in a course with a low B average, more B+'s and A's, more C's and C-'s, and fewer low Bs.
The interepretation of these results would be an interesting project (I think they show something about the policy encourages students to take more responsibility for their own work), but I've actually been thinking about the ethics of this kind of policy lately. More specifically, I'm wondering what the justification can be for hiding what questions are going to be on an exam. The most common defense of the old way seems to be that telling students what is going to be on the exam ahead of time means they will only study those areas that will be on the exam. I think this is true, but I take it to be the precise challenge in exam writing. If there's something I want students to study that isn't on the exam, I need a better exam. If I've covered too much in a unit than can be reasonably assessed, I need to cover that much less and the important stuff more thoroughly.
Furthermore, and this is where the ethical argument starts in, even back when I was a (fairly good) undergraduate, I always thought there was something weird about the element of trickery involved in getting me to study everything in order to answer just a few questions on an exam. There was of course the earlier problem with wondering why they didn't just make the tough choices about what was really important, but there was also a profound frustration when one spent a good deal of time preparing for an exam thinking the emphasis of the course was on one aspect, then, when the exam came around, discovering the professor had a very different idea of what the emphasis had been. (And looking back, one wonders whether the fault was in choice of emphasis or simply quick and dirty exam preparation.)
So in a nutshell, the ethical qualm is that (as teaching guru Keith Barker put it), this is education, not the lottery. Any increased breadth in knowledge gained by hiding questions can be gained by rethinking one's exams and without hiding the questions. Transparency seems to promote student responsibility, decrease student anxiety, and decrease the frustration at perceived arbitrariness that turns students off to philosophy in particular and university education in general.
There's a lot more that I want to mention, but hey, blogging isn't writing journal articles, and I'm much more interested in hearing what everyone else has to say on the topic.