THE COVID-19 ED CASE CHRONICLES #2: Tips for Testing at a Distance

When my state announced that schools would have to make teaching and learning operations available virtually, my ninth- and tenth-grade ELA classes were both nearing the ends of multi-week units. 

While I wasn’t thrilled about the directive (or, very obviously, the crisis that prompted it), its timing actually works out pretty well for me and where my classes are currently. After all: in the coronormal’s immediate term, I won’t have to fret much about how to simultaneously get my sea legs in the online-instructional waters and effectively teach rigorous new content. The hard parts of my units-in-progress (like installing background knowledge, working through unit texts, designing practice and analysis exercises, keeping up with grading, etc.) are effectively done.  

Assessing the learning that happened or didn’t happen over the wholes of those units, though, is another deal entirely. I’ve assessed throughout the units to inform my planning and my support, of course, but, due to the nature of the content we’d been working with, I was really counting on the ‘so-what’ of some kind of capping examination. It is, after all, the best way to know how much of all that unit content has made it firmly into students’ long-term memories. (And as I have more applied, analytical exercises coming up next, I really didn’t want to move on without a bit more certainty.)

The distance-learning relationship changes all this, of course. Indeed, without being able to provide a true testing environment, I had to wonder if the tests I’d originally envisioned were even worth giving.

After some thought, however, I decided that the answer is absolutely yes: even within the new realities of distance learning, going through with the tests is the right thing to do. Some additional guides and procedures will have to be established first (and yes, I’m just going to have to let a few things go), but I can make this work—I think, in fact, that I can use this situation to help kids actually improve their exam-preparation habits.

In Light of the Circumstances, Lighten the Heck Up

To begin, as in my overarching approach to all my distance-teaching, I’m starting with my state of mind. Specifically, I’m keeping in mind the utter weirdness of the current situation. 

I’m not talking about lowering expectations, as I’m never about that. On some things, though, I have to keep the circumstances in mind and just lighten the heck up. I have to get over myself. I have to accept that perfectly replicating my physical classroom’s conditions—especially on a matter like test security—is simply not possible, and then plan accordingly.

To put it another way: with all the income being lost, ways of life being rearranged, and people fearing for the health and safety of their loved ones, I probably shouldn’t work myself into a lather when one of my students thumbs through his copy of Antigone so he can select ‘Teiresias’ over ‘Eteocles’ for a point on my test. (And folks out there just powering through and going ‘next-level’, please, please check yourself. All of this is an emergency-response, remember.)   

Use Test Design to Keep Conditions Rigorous (…and myself sane)

I can, though, ratchet the challenge level high, get a good bead on what my students have learned, and keep my own workload manageable through my test design. Below are some principles I’m abiding by, and strategies I’m enacting, to do so.

Use the available tools As my students regularly use Google’s interface and because I’m conducting most classroom business through Google Classroom, I’ll be collecting student output with a Google Form. This will make grading a bit more manageable, as I have worked the form’s settings to log correct answers. Plus, I’ll get handy spreadsheets of results across the class to inform future instruction. (If you’d rather not use Google, several online survey tools are available freely. For a quick list of a few, see here. I’ve used a few of these myself—and while it’s never been for instructional purposes, I don’t see why they couldn’t be rigged to do a serviceable job. Happy browsing.)

“Open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy” – Okay, so I’ve let a few things go and accepted that students will use their notes (and one another) to work on the tests I administer. Still, “open-note test” doesn’t have to equal “easy”. Here are a few things I’m doing in hopes that students will prepare diligently for, not just coast into, test day.

  • Defining the time of the test window. The Google Form students are expected to complete for their exam will open at a certain time, and no answers will be accepted after a certain time. (Incidentally, I’m providing 90 minutes. This is considerably longer than usual, but it uniformly provides enough time for all—and honors my IEP students with additional-time accommodations.)
  • Making “open-notes” a trap. Within the 90-minute time window, I’m making the concept of open-note test a bit of a trap through point-distribution. On one test, which is worth 100 points total, I’ve made sure the majority of the points (55, that is) come through the test’s extended essay and short answer (2-3 sentences) sections. That makes less than half of the test multiple-choice, or notes-reference-able. And from there it’s just math: If each question takes 1-2 minutes of looking in notes to find answers, students will have used their entire allotted time (90 minutes, remember) on less than half of the overall test.
  • Communicating the above rationale clearly. I see this as a good way to teach some lessons about habits of preparation and attention (which I do regularly), so I plan to start the week with some explicit reminders of the above points. I’ll put these out on my Google Classroom stream, definitely in writing and perhaps via video.  

Teach, Structure, and Incentivize Retrieval Practice

Finally, I’m using the run-up to these tests as a way to get students preparing through content retrieval, as, of course, retrieving information from our memories is one of the most proven ways to make information permanent in our memories. 

To replace the myriad ways I typically have students retrieve crucial content in my classroom, I’m taking steps like these:

  • Exposing students to the underlying science of retrieval practice with accessible videos like this one, from my friends the Learning Scientists.
  • Via extra credit rewards, encouraging students to prepare through retrieval practice. In my case, I’m offering extra credit to students who write quizzes using their class materials, as well as to students who take the quizzes written by their classmates. 

* * *

All that said, though, I have to be honest: I have no idea how it will all go. None of us do, really, as highly successful virtual teaching and learning is still much more aspiration than reality for our enterprise.

And as such is true, I’ll stick to my basic classroom principles—and, of course, a genuine acknowledgement of our unique circumstances—and do my best translating them to the new normal. It’s the best any of us can do.


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