Organic chemistry students are designing their own tests this fall as part of a new practice begun by Chemistry Teacher Jake Nagy.
During class on the day before a test, a few randomly chosen students—everyone gets a turn—meet with Mr. Nagy to decide how exactly they will challenge their peers. Together they create the majority of the problems that will appear on the test, and Mr. Nagy then adds some questions he has written independently, he said.
“This [has been] an effort to allow me to see what do the kids know, what do they think is important from what we learned, and how can I use that to focus on the material for the test,” he said.
Mr. Nagy said he was inspired to try student test committees partly because of his frustration with assessments.
“[A test] does an OK job of assessing what kids know, but it’s imperfect,” he said. “I have seen that many students struggle with the timing or the interpretation of a question more than [with] actually conveying what they understand.”
As a member of a test committee in his organic chemistry class, Max Ambris ’19 said creating the test made him learn the material in more detail.
“It’s really difficult—and much more difficult than taking the test,” he said. “It’s hard to come up with a good question. It takes a firmer grasp on the material than usual.”
In addition to helping build the test, the test committee completes the final version as a practice test or take-home test and then writes an answer key, which requires them to figure out parameters for partial credit. This is a valuable exercise, Mr. Nagy said, because it allows students to see how test questions are designed and thus helps them become more effective test-takers.
To ensure that the test committee doesn’t share questions or test materials with their classmates, Mr. Nagy said he stresses the honor code, trusting his students to keep the test materials a secret. Students on the committee are graded on the quality of their questions, the answer key, and the contributions they make to the test’s creation, he said.
“It’s helpful for me to have another set of eyes from students so I know which questions are fair,” he added. “From a selfish standpoint, as a teacher, it gives me a way of knowing, going into the test, that this is a good assessment.”
Emily Angelino ’20, whose honors chemistry class tried this method for a unit on the periodic table and quantum mechanics last month, said Mr. Nagy’s approach reduced the stress of taking tests.
“The environment Mr. Nagy fosters, allowing us to become confident in our work but also in each other, made the test that much better,” she said. “A student-made test seems more like calming review questions rather than a dreaded exam.”
Lindsay Sheft ’19, in Mr. Nagy’s organic chemistry class, said the fact that Mr. Nagy has a final look at tests is nonetheless reassuring.
“It makes me feel better knowing he checks over all the tests, and it’s not just students running the entire show, so they can’t make it insanely hard or easy,” she said.
Mr. Nagy said he is always looking for new teaching approaches so that he can offer different ways for different kinds of students to engage with the material. When he was a high school and college student, Mr. Nagy added, the more traditional, lecture-based teaching style suited him just fine.
“I was happy to show up and say, ‘Tell me what I need to know, give me the information, and I’ll go off and do it,’” he said. “That worked for me, but that’s not what works for everyone.”
Other curricular initiatives Mr. Nagy has implemented include student-made videos, skits, and self-paced learning, where students teach themselves concepts from notes Mr. Nagy presents at the beginning of each unit before preparing for weekly pass-fail quizzes.