How Hard Should Your Test Be?

When I started as an instructor I struggled with the idea of how hard to make my tests and assignments.  Even with time, it is still a bit of a guess.  This past month, the Scientific American posted a blog summarizing some recent research.

In short, you don’t want your course or exam to be too easy, then students are challenged and true learning doesn’t occur, nor do you want the test to be so hard that no one can pass it.  The ideal sweet spot for learning is 85%.  At that point, students are being optimally challenged and are still getting enough correct answers to engage their interest and keep them motivated.

The theory is derived from the work of a team lead by Robert Wilson for the University of Arizona, whose team studied the ideal point of difficulty to enhance the learning of material and how the level of difficult impacted that learning.

If you want to read the blog post, click here:

If you want to read the research paper that it was based on, you can read it here:




Plan for the Unexpected

As you plan your day in the classroom, keep Murphy’s Law in mind, what ever can go wrong, will go wrong.  Make time for mistakes, for discussion, make time for the unexpected so that you don’t have to rush through the materials, so that there is time for questions.

Murphy would tell us though, that something will go wrong and the class will move faster than you though.  So, have a back up.  That material that is extra, that way if time moves too quickly, you have something to fill in with.

Make room for the unexpected.

The Case Against Extra Credit Assignments

A common request from students to instructors is for a ‘do over’ or for an extra piece of work to bring their grade up after falling short on an assignment.

Professor Wayne Stauffer writing for the Inside Higher Ed website gives a compelling argument for not allowing these extra assignments:

At it’s core is forcing students to take accountability for their work, the first time, so that they put the proper effort into assignments every time.

Not mentioned in the article, put something to also be aware of, is fairness.  If you allow one student a rewrite, what about everyone else in the class?

It’s such a common request at PACE that instructors should give thought to it before the class starts and how they will respond to requests.

Are Learning Styles Real?

When I was learning to be an instructor, I was taught two key points that I was told to ensure all of lessons plans addressed.  One was the Learning Pyramid and the other was learning styles; it was stressed that to be a good instructor, these needed to be in every lesson.

The Learning Pyramid is a theory that people learn only a small part of a lecture, learn 10% from reading, learn 20% from audio/visual, and so one till you get to the base of the pyramid that says we learn much more by ‘doing’.

If you’ve heard of that theory, I hope you’ve also heard that it’s false.  There are a number of articles out there that show it’s not true, including some that show the supposed source never put out the stats that the pyramid claims:

I quickly picked that up and have dropped it from my materials and teaching plans.  Now it seems the other ‘must do’ I was taught is also false; teaching styles are myth says a lot of research, and yet it persists:

Rather than try to cater to every learners’ style, it’s more important to be clear and gain understanding by teaching material in a variety of ways. The type of material and understanding being sought will play a larger role than ‘learner style’ – teaching someone to do something (like play soccer) needs tactile / hands on work, while teaching someone to be able to define concepts will lean more to discussion or lecture.

The Forgetting Curve

Ever had that moment where you’ve met someone and two minutes later, you can’t recall their name?  Or read a passage in a book, but you can’t remember what it said?  Think of your students, how much do you think they remember after the class is done?  Would you believe they can forget as much as 80% by the day after your class?

Back in the 1800’s, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, did a study on how people forget what they’ve learned.  It was a limited study, but the theory has been replicated and become known as the Forgetting Curve.

The Forgetting Curve is exponential.  The student walks out of the lecture knowing 100% of the material, by the day after 50%-80% is gone!  Each day after that gets progressively worse.  By day 7, students have forgotten significant amounts of material.  A month after a lecture, students may only retain 2% – 3% of what they learned!

Graphically, the forgetting curve has been portrayed like this:


(source: )

A huge part of beating the Forgetting Curve is on the student.  Doing recall exercises the next day, ie., studying.  But as instructors, we also play a role in beating the Forgetting Curve:

-Over the duration of a course, or even during a lesson, build in repetition.  Reinforcement is a big part of beating the Forgetting Curve.  During the lesson, build in repetition, to help ensure the material is being learnt.  Then in subsequent classes, come back to it, reinforce the material and ensure that it is being retained.

-Make the lesson, and the material, memorable.  Teach the lesson in a way that students will remember it; give the lesson meaning so students know why they need the lesson, show the teaching point matters.  Deliver it in a way that works for students and will be memorable – be that a game, a story, an example, an activity.

-Share memory tricks.  Is there a mnemonic or memory device that can help to learn the material? Share it!  (How many of us still recite 30 days hath September, April, June, and November….?)

-Be clear in your teaching.  The worse piece is delivering teaching points in a way that can’t be easily followed.  If students struggle to get the material in the first place, they won’t be able to recall it later.  So ensure that the lesson you’ve created is clear TO THE STUDENT.  Too often it’s clear to the instructor, but it’s the student that matters!

Want to know more about the Forgetting Curve, and how easy it is to beat with studying, check out the University of Waterloo post:

Want to see some more ideas about how to improve delivery to beat the Curve, this post is specific to online learning (and was the inspiration for this post), but the ideas can be adopted:

Making the First Day Better

Today is the first day back for students after the winter break, and some new courses start up this week. It’s very timely that the Chronicle of Higher Education put out this post called How to Teach a Good First Day:


Grade Insurance

Welcome to 2019!

When I was studying for university, I had a professor who offered grade insurance on day one of the class.  By doing an extra assignment, students could get insurance worth one mark toward their final grade.  If a student was one mark short of passing or one mark short of the next letter grade their assignment was read and, if it met the minimum requirement, it earned the mark to bump a student up so they didn’t fail or earned them the next letter grade.

To be eligible, students had to submit the extra assignment BEFORE receiving their first mark.  Much like insurance on your car, you can’t buy it after you’ve had an accident.

To be read, students had to be one mark short of the next letter grade.  Not two, not three, one mark and one mark only.  Students were told up front that if they fell one mark short and hadn’t taken out ‘insurance’, there would be no discussion about adjusting or raising their grade.

To qualify for the mark, the submission had to meet an established and posted rubric.  This was standard to any assignment.  It included components on grammar, content, writing skills, etc.  To earn the mark, students had to earn a C or better on the assignment.  It was not a case of submitting the extra work and automatically getting the grade as the submitted assignment still had to meet a minimum level of effort and quality.

Like any assignment, this extra insurance assignment had assignment instructions that spelled out the ‘question’ to be answered in the assignment, the format, the length of the response, and the due date and time.

Given that a portion of marking is subjective, no matter how good a rubric is designed, this grade insurance is a way for the instructor to head off debates about the subjective qualities and to alleviate the pressure from students looking to raise their grade.

Next class I teach, I’m going to give it a try.

Exam Template

Did you know that PACE has an exam template for midterms and final exams?

It’s on the Nexus Instructor Communication Portal, under Content – Exams.

We ask that instructors use this to create their exams for use at PACE.