Monday, March 10, 2008

In the Annals of "I Could Have Told You That" Research

Teachers who 'teach' in large lecture halls give exams on different colored sheets to reduce cheating. The questions are put in a different order on the two forms.

That way students who look around to steal answers won't be able to easily copy their classmates' presumably correct answers.

Because this practice is so widespread, and because more than a few students have complained that test printed on different colored sheets are "unfair" (because you can't cheat as easily then?), a few lecturers of humongous lecture halls got together and conducted a study to determine whether the color of the paper affects exam performance at all.

Guess what? It didn't.

I have no idea why instructors use different colors of paper to keep the different versions of the exam straight when they could just put an A or B or whatever code on the top and use white paper.

I figure all-white exams serve two purposes.
  • Dye isn't used so they're more environmentally responsible. Of course, unbleached paper would be the best from a solely environmental standpoint. And if, as the study found out, even primary as opposed to pastel colored paper doesn't have a significant effect, then why not just print them on Kraft paper that is 100% post-consumer content or unbleached paper?
  • Students might believe all of the exams are the same so copiers would be penalized because they'd end up copying down the wrong answers.
In any case, this study certified the obvious: Printing exams on different colors doesn't affect exam performance and is therefore not "unfair." Different colored exams are totally useless in my book.

And furthermore, students should never be lectured in large auditoriums anyway. Lectures do little to teach students. They don't usually make students think, or process what they've learned.

And for that matter, neither do multiple choice exams. The questions that come out of instructor test banks nearly always test factual rather than conceptual knowledge and none of them ask students to apply or synthesize material. In other words, they don't demand much of students. They don't demand much of instructors either since most lecturers can have the department secretary type up exam questions the instructor chooses from the exam book. A machine grades them.

It's unfortunate so many college students have this inferior form of education inflicted on them in the first place.


Weird Bug Lady said...

Oh how I wish I had all multiple choice tests, hahaha.

I've never seen a multicolored exam, once in a while in a really big class we got one that has an A and B version. All of the exams at my campus take place in a huge ballroom, desks spread way out, and if there's more than one test at a time, they stagger the rows. So if you try to cheat, you might be getting answers to the soil ecology exam rather than your own.

My largest lecture has about 60 people. It's nice when things are kept small. I've learned the most in classes of about 15 to 30, when we all get to be involved.

Waterrose said...

Interesting information ..I'm not telling my kids..they will feel cheated.

Anonymous said...

Why colors and not a letter at the top? With colors you can tell at a glance if two students next to each other got the same exam. As a TA who handed out exams to a 450 student class, having 4 colors made it much easier to determine if the exams were passed correctly. (We did two colors per row, alternating rows. So one got white and pink, next green and yellow.)

Even with 10 TAs and colors it still took 10 minutes just to pass out exams. And 3 hours for 10 of us to grade the 2 longer answer questions.

Anonymous said...

I know large lectures get a lot of flack, and that there is some research to back it up - but it does depend on the lecturer AND the student.

As a student, I really enjoyed my lectures, and preferred the large ones to the small ones as long as the acoustics were OK. Lectures were so much more interesting, and went at a much better speed for me, than group activities and seminars - seminars only worked for me if I was lucky enough to be in a group with people of similar enthusiasm and willingness to work/question - spending the whole seminar recapping the lecture for the half of the group who missed it, or doing more of the exact same type of problems as we'd covered in the lecture, was a waste of my time and happened too often. OK, so I was wierd - but why shouldn't holists like me, who want the big picture, a map with a few broad features, as a framework for our own reading and exploring, be catered for in the system?

As a lecturer, I prefer 'mixed activity' classes with short lecturers, discussion, practical activities - but these do require certain conditions (a suitable room, an appropriate class size) and don't always work depending on the class mix and, particularly important in my experience, the time of the class (late afternoon classes - bad. early morning classes after the weekly student-run clubbing night - bad).

Also, multi-coloured exams - presumably all the students whose dyslexia or other impairment is adversely or positively affected by colour were screened out first?

Field Notes said...


Great points.

You're right, lectures don't have to be bad. Lectures can actually be quite good, and demos and discussions can be mind-numbing and a waste of time.

You are also right abut the room. In my experience, sometimes you just have to take what room you can get and work with it.

I am a big fan of the multi-pronged approach to teaching. By practicing different forms of instruction, teacher will be prepared to adjust their methods on the fly when given a classroom that designed for only one form of instruction.

They didn't mention screening out students... this wasn't the greatest study ever published...

PG said...

Wow...I wish I could publish research that comes with a ready made participant pool and only required basic t-tests.

Actually, I would question whether it's representative of how students feel to say that they find tests printed on different colour sheets to be unfair. I don't believe that students really care.

KieutiePie said...

WOW I've never seen this kind of thing happen. That's hilarious that it can be called "unfair" just because it makes cheating harder. I don't see how else this could possibly affect anything.

B said...

I'm with mel. Having the multi colors in a class of 250 really helps to see who has what and that way people can't swamp exams with the kid next to them to cheat with their friend. (AA BB which you can do if they are all white, and I've seen it attempted!)

yellowfish said...

that is hilarious that they actually tested that! At the university I work at, they use the multicolored ones so (like b said) you can eyeball a row of people and make sure they haven't swapped exams or seats to enable cheating... (people will try EVERYTHING! it unbelievable).