The Mid-Term as a Diagnostic Tool

October is a month in which summer’s fading warming sometimes lingers a little longer, approaching winter’s first frost nips fragile blossoms and lush blades of grass, the leaves erupt in a growing explosion of color, and a sweet harvest of gourds—and Candy Corn for children—ends the month. It is also a month when Mid-Term Examinations can provide early but robust insight into student learning progress.

In my classes, the Mid-Term serves four purposes: (1) it is a diagnostic tool for assessing student learning progress to date—and to ensure that it is largely a diagnostic tool, it counts for only 20%- 25% of my course grade; (2) the outcomes are useful in refining student preparation strategies; (3) the results make it possible to refine teaching emphasis for the remainder of the semester; and (4) persistent outcome patterns make it possible to better allocate coverage of course content and focus teaching effort in subsequent semesters.

Following the Mid-Term, I provide my students with a comprehensive discussion of the results. That discussion includes data on the mean score, standard deviation, a graph showing the distribution of scores, a table that displays student performance by chapter, a score map that illustrates performance by chapter and content area, a summary of major outcomes, and then detailed discussion of each exam question. That detailed discussion covers the question, its solution, the chapter from which the question was drawn, the relevant PowerPoint review slide (if applicable), the percentage of students having correct responses, and the most common error. Afterward, I post the PowerPoint slides from that assessment on BlackBoard.  

For the current semester, my Mid-Term Exam was comprised of fifteen True-False questions, fifteen Multiple Choice questions, and a short case with five questions. Each True-False and Multiple Choice question was worth 2.5 points. The short case was worth 25 points.

On average, the students did very well on the True-False and Multiple Choice questions. They received just over 66 out of 75 possible points. However, when it came to the case, they earned an average of just 5 out of 25 points. The extreme disparity of outcomes between the True-False/Multiple Choice questions and the short case indicated that students were familiar with the theories and concepts covered in the text, but had great difficulty applying them.

Based on this outcome, I will refine my teaching approach for the remainder of the semester. I will now devote a smaller share of class time to theories and concepts and a larger portion to problem-solving and case discussion. Without an ability to apply theories and concepts, students lack the capacity to leverage the value associated with those theories and concepts. Under such circumstances, knowledge is rendered superficial and the theories and concepts covered in class become largely irrelevant and highly forgettable.

Case analysis can also augment students’ critical thinking abilities. Case exercises allow students to identify a problem, examine and synthesize relevant evidence, place a problem or situation within a larger context, consider a range of scenarios, and develop and express a position or conclusion supported by evidence. Case studies also reinforce learning for the long-term. In the complex, interconnected, and dynamic global business environment in which today’s students will be graduating, effective critical thinking skills and long-term knowledge retention have become especially important.  

All said, the Mid-Term is more than a building block for a course grade. It can be a powerful diagnostic tool. A careful analysis of its outcomes, a willingness to make adjustments based on that information, and open communication with students can strengthen student learning.

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