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Test anxiety, grade inflation call traditional grading system into question

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A lecture hall filled with students is silent except for the slow, precise ticking of the clock above the chalkboard. The professor calls out the time remaining as students scribble away at their Scantrons. One by one, students make their way to the front of the room to turn in their tests before filing out the door, except for one student, who sits with an incomplete Scantron before him. With sweaty palms, he shakes nervously as he desperately tries to remember the material he spent days reviewing, but he can’t; paralyzed by anxiety, his brain has shut down, and all the information he could recall just minutes before the test began is now gone. 

Bristol Souders, an architecture freshman, has struggled with test anxiety since he was in elementary school. He said it doesn’t matter how well he prepares for the test, he still freezes up and forgets the material. 

“I would feel completely fine up until the test, but when the test gets passed out and I have the Scantron in front of me … something happens, I just go blank and my palms get really sweaty … I would just forget everything,” Souders said. 

Souders said it is hard to explain what happens during a test because even though he will spend days studying and learning the material, his test grade would not reflect it. 

“I don’t know what happens, but it’s like (my brain) gets confused,” Souders said. “I get really sweaty and hot, and I’ll get really nervous and start shaking,” he said. 

Souders said anything from watching other students finish their tests before him to the professor announcing how much time is left can stress him out to the point of forgetting what he studied. 

Test anxiety and recent findings of grade inflation at elite universities like Harvard and Yale have prompted the idea of finding alternative solutions to the normal system of hard grades.

According to a USA Today article, more than 50 percent of the grades given by some colleges are A's. This, along with the steady increases in the average GPA, has led to the question of what an A really means.

The answer for combating test anxiety and grade inflation for students and schools may be to change how grading is done altogether.

Rob Reynolds, the Chief Product Officer for NextThought, a company that partners with OU to provide technology and learning design for university courses and master’s programs, said some universities are shifting their focuses to something called evidence-based learning.

Reynolds said evidence-based learning is learning by doing, and moving away from traditional, quantitative assessments towards measurement-type activities that allow students to demonstrate what they have learned.

“Learning is deeper than information-level processing,” Reynolds said. “Learning is about ownership of information and knowledge and being able to take information and turn it into actionable thinking.”

Reynolds said traditional summative assessments students are accustomed to, like fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice and short answer, imply that learning is only information processing. Evidence-based learning, however, goes much deeper and evaluates not only critical thinking skills, but how far the student has come.

“You have to have two points to do a measurement,” Reynolds said. “So if you don’t know where the student was when they started, how are you supposed to know how far they’ve come once they finish a class?”

Laura Gibbs, a lecturer in the OU College of Arts and Sciences who teaches online courses in the modern languages department, uses evidence-based learning to evaluate students’ progress in her courses. Gibbs does not give a final exam in any of her courses, but instead focuses on a continual process of feedback and improvement throughout the semester for her students’ writing assignments.

“Grades have a sense of finality about them, and a final exam is too high-stakes,” Gibbs said. “I like to create more of an open-ended process. It’s all about performance and feedback."

Gibbs said she likes giving feedback on students’ assignments rather than assigning a grade because it is a more beneficial way for the student to learn. Students still receive a grade at the end of the semester, but the grade comes from points students earn throughout the semester for completing their assignments on time and with the desired criteria.

Gibbs said she likes to let the students have the power to earn the grades they desire for the class, and that as long as they put forth the effort, their grades will reflect that.

“Everything takes practice, and practice takes feedback, and grades don’t really feel like feedback,” Gibbs said. “Grades really feel like you’re being judged or like you’re being rewarded or punished, so I think feedback is a lot better.”

Instead of a final exam, Gibbs has students work on an assignment throughout the semester that builds on the concepts learned each week. Through feedback and revision, the students are able to fine-tune their assignments and submit their final projects at the end of the semester.

Gibbs said she has never been a fan of final exams because she feels they aren’t an accurate representation of what a student has learned.

“It’s a high-stakes exam … you’re asking someone to perform at a certain place in a certain amount of time and you’re putting a lot of weight on that performance,” Gibbs said. “They might be sick or stressed because they have three other finals that day, and it’s just not accurate.”

Reynolds said evidence-based learning will vary from class to class depending on what the learning outcomes need to look like, but that one thing for him is certain: tests, exams and finals aren’t an accurate way to determine the knowledge a student has acquired from a class. 

“Being able to take information and turn it into actionable thinking and apply it to new situations to come up with solutions, that is the learning process,” Reynolds said.

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