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The finals frontier
Students create their own exams
Three years ago, Gerald C. Kane, assistant professor of information systems at the Carroll School of Management, invited students in his sections of the required freshman class “Computers in Management” (MI 021) to propose questions for the final exam. Kane had already prepared a set, but he thought the exercise would be a worthwhile study tool for the class. The results surprised him.
The students not only anticipated all of Kane’s questions, they also came up with some that “were better than mine,” he recalls. Since then, his final exams, which account for 50 percent of the overall grade, have been devised largely by the students.
The approach aligns well with the aims of MI 021, which, according to a description with the syllabus, “is intended to help the student develop mastery of the computer as a management tool,” and which focuses in part on social media—that is, content created by users. Kane’s favorite example of this mode of communication is the collaborative websites known as wikis, of which the most famous is Wikipedia, self-described as the “free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”
When Kane first broached the idea of student-generated tests with his class, students welcomed the idea but suggested they also prepare answers. Kane agreed—with the caveat that he couldn’t guarantee the accuracy of the answers they posted. He then set up a wiki—basically a password-protected Internet bulletin board—where students could submit proposed questions. In the six semesters since then, class members have posted roughly a thousand questions and answers—all of which are then edited collaboratively by fellow students. Most of the 150 freshmen who make up the three sections of his class contribute, lured in part by bonus points awarded for questions that Kane includes on the exam.
Only a fraction of the questions appear on the final. Examples from last spring’s test include: “Briefly describe how India became the ‘king’ of outsourcing for the U.S.”; “Identify the two types of [Internet technology] used by Zara”—the so-called fast-fashion retailer—”and briefly describe how Zara uses them to create competitive advantage”; and “Identify the two types of click-fraud faced by Google” (this refers to deceptions that involve repeatedly clicking on an ad placed with the search engine, to jack up the costs to the advertiser, which pays Google for each click—the culprits are typically competitors of that company).
Kane says he knows of just a handful of professors around the country who employ wikis as he does. All of them, he says, heard about it from him, via conversations at conferences or presentations at institutions ranging from the University of Minnesota to Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. Boston College geology and geophysics associate professor Alan Kafka adopted the practice in his “Geoscience and Public Policy” (GE 187) course, after Kane pitched the idea at the annual faculty “E-learning” day two years ago. “I was very nervous at first,” Kafka recalls. He worried that managing a website used interactively by 150 students might monopolize his time. But to his surprise, the wiki was largely self-regulating, needing little professorial intervention. Both he and Kane say that after giving students the basic instructions, all the professors have to do is sift through the questions (they pay no attention to the answers), picking the best ones and tweaking them as necessary. And Kafka’s wiki gave rise to a separate Internet group—”a very rich discussion” among his students, Kafka says—about geologically focused public policy issues.
Kane considers his method of fashioning exams an instance of “crowdsourcing,” a practice employed increasingly in business, in which companies turn to their customers to help solve problems. (Example: Goldcorp, a Canadian gold mining company, posted a $575,000 reward for locating the best sites for new exploration; “the crowd” came up with hundreds of lucrative targets.) Some observers worry that Kane’s approach allows students to memorize answers and simply repeat them on the exam. “I’ve gone around and around with my colleagues on this,” Kane responds. “The sheer volume of information makes it almost impossible to just regurgitate. I certainly couldn’t do it.” Indeed, a printout of postings leading up to the spring 2009 final exam (Kane was on leave last semester) ran to 45 single-spaced pages.
Furthermore, although about 80 percent of the questions on Kane’s exams are at least variations of what students have proposed, they constitute only about 10 percent of the questions posted on the class wiki, and students don’t know the questions they’ll encounter on the final until they open their exam booklets (yes, the actual exam involves blue books). And there’s no guarantee that answers cobbled together by students on the wiki will satisfy Kane. “You can’t completely trust the answers,” says accounting and finance major Jane Greeno ’10, who took the course as a freshman and has since served as a teaching assistant in the class. “So you have to go back to your notes and the readings and make sure everything is right. You have to come up with your own answers.”
What Kane finds especially gratifying is the view expressed by students that wrong or questionable answers posted on the site are often among the most valuable, forcing students to go back to their books (as Greeno did) and engage the material on a deeper level, ultimately learning more about the subject matter. He adds that the exercise teaches them to be savvier users of social media, including Wikipedia. (It also allows him to spend less time entertaining the perennial question of “what will be on the final exam,” he says.)
Kane notes that the wiki-based exam has clarified his thinking about the role of the professor in the social-media age. “It’s not about Professor Kane having all the knowledge, and imparting it to students,” he says. “We’re moving toward a more collaborative world. The professor is a guide, and the students are active participants in the learning environment.”
Read more by William Bole