Thursday, February 24, 2011

Assessment - Practical Exams

The first practical exam I ever experienced was in a college anatomy course, and I failed miserably.  I did not know how to prepare, nor did I know what to expect as far as the type of information I would be required to be responsible for in the exam.  I made the mistake of thinking that every skull, femur and foot looked exactly the same.  I did not understand the importance of repetition nor did I understand that the images in the books were not exactly like the bones we were studying.

Like hitting a curve ball in baseball, you can't learn to hit one by reading a book or watching someone else do it.  You have to experience it, see the release, read the spin and swing the bat.

It is our job as educators to provide students with as many of the possible types of assessment as we can within our classrooms.  Preparing for and taking a practical exam is a very different experience from a standard pen and paper exam. 

Every semester my anatomy students take two skeletal practical exams.  The first exam   focuses on the bones of the axial skeleton and the second includes the bones of the appendicular skeleton.  Students are responsible to learn the bone names, anatomical structures and whether the bone is a left or right. There is no word bank provided and spelling counts.

Our school runs a 95 minute block schedule.  In my anatomy class students spend the first 20 to 30 minutes each day involved in bone study.  We are very fortunate to have two and a half real human skeletons and a plastic model.  Students work in partners and small groups to study the bones, their anatomy and structures.  I stress  the importance of repetition.  The value in working together and teaching each other.  (Phillips: We remember 92% of what we teach each other.)
I point out how each skeleton is unique and therefore the bones may differ and that students need to study each bone because they do not know which set of bones will show up on the day of the exams.

On the day of the exam students rotate through a series of twenty stations answering two or three questions at each station, naming bones, the structures, whether the bones are left or right and the classification of bones.

I have also included practical exams based upon dissection labs and microscope labs in both anatomy and biology.  Students need to learn the importance of viewing more than one slide or  their own dissected frog.  They learn to appreciate the uniqueness of each organism through their observations over time. These exams help students to focus on details and gain a better understanding of the application of the knowledge gained.

Most often, my former students point to their experience in taking and preparing for practical exams as one of their most valuable learning experiences for success in college.

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