When Liza Gibbs ’16 enrolled in CHEM 0330: “Equilibrium, Rate and Structure” last semester, she quickly found herself lost. After the first exam, she was in danger of failing.
“I realized I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “My first and only (Chem) 33 midterm was a horrifying experience.”
In large lecture classes, particularly introductory courses in science, technology, engineering and math, professors often face a difficult conundrum: how to hold as many as 400 students accountable for the material. Many of these courses resort to giving a few high-stakes exams — for example, NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience,” one of the largest classes at the University, bases its grades almost exclusively on exam performance. This emphasis on testing often makes it difficult to keep up, many students said.
Peggy Chang ’91, director of the Curricular Resource Center, said testing is important because it holds students accountable for knowing a course’s material and being able to apply it independently.
“It’s a way to gauge how well a student understands the material and (can) think critically and analytically,” Chang said.
But with so much on the line with testing assessments, some students said it is hard not to feel stressed.
The science of stress
Though Student and Employee Accessibility Services does not provide accommodations for students who only exhibit test anxiety, Psychological Services provides support resources. Approximately 600 students had appointments with Psych Services for some kind of anxiety last year, Director of Pyschological Services Belinda Johnson wrote in an email to The Herald.
Aleta Johnson, a psychotherapist at Psychological Services who specializes in anxiety, said test anxiety is a “really common” and “normal” problem at the University, particularly among pre-medical students, medical students and graduate students, who all face high-pressure exams.
“Often, students who are experiencing test anxiety are not just thinking about the test but about what consequences failing the test would bring,” Aleta Johnson said. Besides helping students understand the origins of their test anxiety, she works with students to develop a “variety of different relaxation strategies,” such as breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation.
Aleta Johnson said her treatments are largely based on the underlying biology. “Although anxiety starts with a person’s thoughts about the exam, those thoughts do produce chemical reactions that then begin a whole cycle,” she said, citing the stress hormone cortisol and neurotransmitter GABA as key chemicals. Interrupting that cycle can be done with either thoughts or biological techniques like calmer breathing, she said.
For managing test stress, she recommended that students eat and sleep well in addition to preparing early.
“The brain uses up a lot of calories,” she said. “You need a lot of good food to fuel that.”
Teaching to the test?
Professors have different preferences for evaluation methods, even among similarly structured academic tracks, such as the three introductory computer science sequences, all of which satisfy the same requirement.
“I don’t like tests,” said Andy van Dam, professor of computer science and instructor for CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science,” one of the department’s introductory courses. During his experience teaching introductory computer science courses over several decades, he found that students’ test grades did not correlate well with their performances on class projects, which he considers more valuable than “problem solving under a severe time constraint,” he said.
Van Dam, who grew up in the Netherlands, said high-pressure exams are the norm in Europe. He recalled one instance during an oral exam his senior year in which he remained silent for five minutes, unable to make any progress on the question. Students can “end up hating the subject” due to test pressure, he said.
Testing in the computer science world does not end at graduation, Van Dam said, pointing out that job interviews in software engineering typically involve oral questions on difficult technical concepts. He said he worries that such questions “discriminate” against applicants who do not perform well under time pressure.
But Chang said while the “learning by doing” model of some computer science courses works for many subjects, some disciplines like biology require testing to ensure students can build on baseline concepts.
“There’s a sort of foundational knowledge you need to have, about, say mitochondria and proteins,” Chang said. “You need to get it before you can get in a lab and do it.”
Other professors, even within the introductory computer science classes, said they find tests necessary. Associate Professor of Computer Science David Laidlaw, who teaches CSCI 0160: “Introduction to Algorithms and Data Structures,” the second semester of the CS 15-16 sequence, uses homework assignments and projects in addition to exams for evaluating students.
“We just do everything,” he said, adding that exams are useful for testing the mathematical concepts in the course.
Some faculty members and administrators said they are increasingly exploring alternatives to the traditional lecture-exam model of teaching a large class.
Gibbs said her CHEM 0330 midterm score fell within the range that qualified her for CHEM 0330T. The program spaces the course material out over one year for students who are in danger of failing the class in its traditional form or who want a more in-depth understanding of the subject.
Gibbs said one major stress factor in the traditionally test-based lecture course was the pressure placed on each exam.
“If I get sick or something, that might impact my performance,” she said. “It’s stressful having so few tests and knowing that’s a huge part of my grade.”
But in CHEM 0330T, students can take exams on their own time, which Gibbs said helps eliminate some of the pressure.
“It feels less stressful because there’s more structure leading up to it,” she said, adding that CHEM 0330T relies on more frequent tests that each have less impact on students’ grades.
Kathy Takayama, director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning said she will lead a pilot program in the ECON 1110: “Intermediate Microeconomics” program, which will implement many techniques of CHEM 0330T. Students will be working in small groups on collaborative assignments and intimate discussions, Chang said.
Takayama said her pilot program “might alleviate some of the pressures of test anxiety because it can encourage students to continually keep up with the course, review the material and avoid cramming for exams.”
Other courses have embraced the idea of allowing students flexibility in how they would like to be assessed.
In HIST 1850: “American Legal and Constitutional History,” students have the option to choose between writing an essay or taking a midterm exam. Isabel Pitaro ’16 said she likes the option because it allows students to play to their individual strengths. But she said this should not be a universal model.
“Not every test should have that option, though,” Pitaro said. “I think that’s great, but (students) should have to at some point take a test and write a paper — they’re both really important skills for life.”
Clarification: Due to changes made in the editing process, a previous version of this article stated that Liza Gibbs ’16 experienced “crippling test anxiety.” Gibbs has experienced feelings of panic during at least one testing situation.