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25 May 2009 / erikduval

Testing, testing, …

Last and next week, I have the pleasure and privilege to listen to my students present the results of a semester (or sometimes a full year) of project work. I already posted about projects they did with video and music on the web, or in facebook.

Sometimes, we build more tangible things, like … robots that roam around to pick up golf balls – before other robots do so. That was this year’s project for a course on problem solving and design. You can see some of the robots in action in the video.

I’m rather convinced that students learn a lot from such projects – much more so than they typically do in the coming weeks, when they prepare for their more ‘conventional’ exams. I don’t do ‘conventional’ exams. I don’t think they work very well…

I wonder what you think about that? Maybe you’re preparing to take exams from your students, or maybe you’re a student yourself? Or maybe you’re both – I know some of you are! In any case, would be wonderful if you can share your opinion about project-based-permanent-evaluation-oriented approaches versus more conventional show-me-what-you’ve-learned-at-the-end exams…



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  1. Bart Van Loon / May 25 2009 12:34 am

    My opinion changed over the last few years. While I was a student, I definitely liked the “conventional” exams much more (especially when there was only one exam period per year, in stead of two as is the case now). I was very much one of those “just leave me alone”-type of students. University should not bother me too much during the year, so I could concentrate on stuff like student organizations, hobbies and student jobs (and party of course). I rather just spent 4 of 5 really intensive weeks studying than having to worrying 26 weeks about something extra.

    On the other hand, now that I left the university behind me for some years, I realise there’s three kind of things I learned most from: being active in the student organizations, spending time in front of my computer experimenting crazy extra-curricular stuff and those “permanent-evaluation”-type of projects.

    So, bottom line: I think the project-based-permanent-evaluation-oriented approach is better, but I personally very much preferred the more conventional show-me-what-you’ve-learned-at-the-end exams… 🙂

    Just my ¢2…

  2. Parasietje / May 25 2009 2:43 am

    The conventional exams, in my opinion, provide me with more “food for thought”. I learn more tangible, quantifiable knowledge by digging deep inside a book (and, of course, researching the subjects on wikipedia and google).

    However, companies don’t much care for this tangible knowledge. Fine, you know how a compiler works. We could send you on a course to learn that in 2 weeks of intensive training.

    However, it’s that intangible surplus that companies crave. That you know how to lead a team. You know how to make presentations that convince a customer. You know how to deal with that teammate that feigns a headache because he just doesn’t care.
    And you don’t learn those skills in the 2 weeks of studying up to an exam. You learn those over a set of years, in some (very few) courses, and in student organisations. Or by erecting your own company, as a few of my fellow students did!

    Only a small percentage of students have the motivation to gain this experience in extra-curricular activities. The rest study and party, without really brushing up their management skills. So we make project-based courses mandatory. To make sure 100% of the students learn (at least some) of these intangible but much-needed skills.

    And the students that already were up to their heads in student bodies, their own company,…? They need to step down because of too much college work. Which, for me, isn’t helpful; I work in and already try to lead real projects.

    But hopefully, this will make the common student more ready for business, where everything is project-based permanent evaluation.

  3. Allyn J Radford / May 25 2009 3:17 am

    I strongly agree with the value of continuing assessment and especially in project-based activities where students are able to achieve successive milestones towards a larger goal. Whatever terminal assessment is undertaken, it should not be the only assessment. The greatest value of the academic/learning facilitator is to guide students in ways they may not have tried or even thought of if they were left to their own exploratory pathways. Not only is that a different type of challenge for those involved from the “teaching” side but it also requires different forms of assessment. The objectives should be encourage growth, creativity and the development of learning skills, not cloning.

    More importantly, a single terminal assessment leaves no opportunity for remediation. It’s too late when the study period is over and the opportunities to help learners back on track have passed unnoticed.

  4. Chuck Allen / May 25 2009 3:58 am

    I’ve been thinking about this a good deal this weekend as I watch my middle-school aged daughter prepare for final exams. It is pretty obvious that she is principally learning the art of cramming for exams.

  5. tonyvanbeers / May 26 2009 11:59 am

    In my opinion you can separate the conventional exams in two categories.

    On the one hand you have the exams for which you need to study a lot and reproduce this on the exam. Personally I think this is quite useless and only proves students can remember stuff. I think this is a quite obvious remark, but yet most exams are organized this way. Probably because these are the easiest exams to evaluate.

    On the other hand you have the exams which most of the time are open book exams and which look for insights that students have, things that aren’t in the books. I think these exams really can show that a student knows what he’s supposed to know. Another advantage of these exams is that they are less stressing for students : if you understand everything you’ll pass the exam, you don’t need to memorise parts of the course.

    I really think the project work is much better than the first category of exams, you get a hands-on approach of the theory. But I doubt if it’s better than the second one. I think they’re comparable.

  6. lucie / Jun 2 2009 3:46 pm

    I think you have to have both. Of course closed book exams just prove that students can reproduce the things they learned, and that doesn’t prove anything. I guess that’s why there aren’t so many closed book exams left in informatics in leuven.
    Open book exams are good, and I think most students love them, because they don’t have to study everything by head.
    Courses with a lot of projects are good to learn the student some practical stuff, and they learn to work in groups. But if there are too many courses that have projects, it is impossible for the student to finish them all, and they have a lot of stress. Also, if they have too many projects, they don’t have time to go in a student organization or start a company or … And those are also experiences very valuable for the work environment.
    So I think that there has to be a good balance between theoretical courses with open book exams and more practical courses.

  7. Ivana Bosnic / Jun 13 2009 11:51 pm

    I have the opportunity to teach a distributed-project-based-permanenent-evaluation-whatever Software Engineering course and I was a student at that course some years ago. In addition to course being all of that, the project group members are distributed in Sweden and Croatia, which makes the work a lot more interesting and “challenging” 🙂

    The students are at the 5th year (last year of M.Sc.) of studies (old enough to be somehow “serious” about the work), the course groups can’t work if they are too big (usually it’s great with max 20 in each country). The whole thing works *great* as the students are sooo self-motivated and actually enjoy very much the whole, unusual course setting. And, when you add a touch of participating in the world SE contests during the course and actually winning the contest (mind you, I’m not egoistic at all, but it was a great motivating factor), the course ends up being a complete fun for both students and staff. It requires much bigger effort for all, but it’s very worth it!

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