Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Is this a reasonable exam?

I struggle to set good exam questions. One wants to test knowledge and understanding in a way that is realistic within the constraints of students abilities and backgrounds.

I do not have a well-defined philosophy or approach, except for often recycling my old questions...
I think I do have a prejudice towards two goals.

A. Testing higher level skills [e.g. relating theory to experiment, putting things in context, ...] as much as specific technical knowledge [e.g. state Bloch's theorem or solve the Schrodinger equation for a charged particle in constant magnetic field].

B. Testing general and useful knowledge. For basic undergraduate courses [e.g. years 1 to 3] the question should be one that another faculty member could do, even if they have not taught the course. Sometimes, colleagues write questions that I cannot do. You have to have done the problem before, e.g. in a tutorial. We seeming to be testing whether someone has done this course, not "essential" knowledge.

However, I am not sure I really go anywhere near reaching these goals.
Here is a recent mid-semester exam I set for my solid state class of fourth-year undergraduates.
Is it reasonable?

How do you set exam questions?
Do you have a particular approach?


  1. Spinning this around, a good way for academics to make sure they are not losing valuable Physics knowledge and skills by being too specialised might be for them to occasionally solve undergraduate physics exams.
    On the note of what to write in exams, constructive alignment (see Wikipedia) suggests exams should be written at the start of the course to ensure that they do test the learning objectives for the course... Not sure how much help this is in practical terms.
    I really enjoy your blog, by the way! Thank you for posting so regularly.

  2. I think the exam is very reasonable. It tests understanding at the right level.

  3. Not knowing where to post this news in your great blog. Here is the funding from Zukenberg for " BioRxiv preprint server gets funding from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative"


    Will chemists and engineers follow this ?