Gas station without pumps

2011 July 25

Testing insanity

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:15
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John T. Spencer has just posted Testing Insanity: Amount of Days Spent Testing containing pie charts about allocation of the scarcest resource for teachers: instructional time.  (For grammar mavens out there, I point out that “amount” should only be used with uncountable nouns—I assume he mixed “amount of time” with “number of days”.)

If his numbers are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, his school spends fully 28% of their instructional time on testing, not counting the time wasted on test prep.  That seems excessive.

For comparison, I computed how much time is spent on testing at the university.  Comparisons between middle school and college courses are always misleading, because of the difference in how student time is structured.  A middle-school student is expected to spend 30–35 hours a week at school and another 5–6 hours a week on homework, while a college student is expected to spend 9–10 hours a week in classes and another 30–40 hours on homework.  This reversal of time allocation makes comparisons of homework loads and in-class time allocation tricky (and is often the hardest adjustment for new college students to make).

With that caveat, here is my calculation.  A typical 5-unit course at UCSC has 35 hours of lecture plus 3 hours of final exam.  Some courses have discussion sections as well, but these are usually optional and only lightly attended—they can be regarded as supplementary help rather than primary instruction time for most classes (for classes with mandatory discussion sections, the class time increases from 35 to about 46 hours).  A lot of faculty give up one or two lectures for mid-term exams, that is 1.17, 1.75, 2.33, or 3.5 hours.  So the highest exam load for a course is 6.5 hours out of a total of 38 hours, or 17%.  Quizzes and clicker questions could bring that as high as 25%, but I don’t thing that John Spencer was including quizzes and teacher-generated assessments in his count—just exams imposed from outside.

Many faculty, including me, see exams as a poor way of assessing what students have learned in a course—particularly in courses intended to teach skills like computer programming, electronic design, lab skills, writing, or research skills.  For these courses, projects, term papers, and programming assignments done outside of class time are the primary assessments, and little or no class time is used for assessment.  (See Skills at the Center for more discussion of teaching based on skills rather than on testable factoids.)

I do see a need for standardized exams to let parents and colleges know how much the kids are really learning, but the cost in instructional time has gotten ridiculously large.  Continual testing is no substitute for teaching and learning.


  1. When I first read your comments, I wasn’t used to the criticism. So often, people praise bloggers and fail to offer a critique. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate what you offer. You are much more detail-oriented, process-driven and scientifically-minded than me. However, you’ve helped me to see a few things I was missing (the need for precise language, proof-reading, etc.)

    Comment by johntspencer — 2011 July 26 @ 14:45 | Reply

    • I am a rather nit-picky person, quite detail-oriented (which is often an asset to a computer scientist).

      I do value your writing (or I wouldn’t still subscribe to your blog), though I don’t agree with you on some points, and we come from rather different approaches to teaching. My comments are never intended as attacks.

      Sometimes I do come across as rude, because I may focus on the perfectible blemishes rather than on the big picture when commenting. Also, sometimes people just want “props” and not real feedback, and I’m not socially astute enough to be able to tell.

      I, too, find criticism hard to take, but I also value feedback that makes me rethink my position on issues—either coming up with better arguments for my initial stance or modifying to a more balanced one. One of the advantages of blogging is that I don’t have to respond immediately to criticism. I can sit on the criticism for an hour, a day, or a week, and let myself get gradually used to it. Often my initial defensive reaction changes to a grudging admission that the critic has a good point, sometimes even to my withdrawing (or making a major modification to) my initial statement. If I’m silent with respect to a criticism, it is either because I didn’t see it, or because I’m still thinking about it.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 July 26 @ 16:31 | Reply

      • You’d probably be surprised by my teaching style. While I tend to highlight more of the constructivist approach on my blog, I do a fair amount of direct instruction, debate and other “traditional” styles of teaching. We’re probably in disagreement about grades (I tend to go with standards-based), but I do run a strict, structured environment. I couldn’t allow the type of freedom my students have if I wasn’t at least one part hardass.

        Comment by johntspencer — 2011 July 27 @ 09:47 | Reply

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