Using tests to meet course goals

― Jeanne M. Slattery

I am teaching a course that I haven’t taught in six years. While coming back to an old course sometimes feels like more work than developing a new one, it’s been useful to see this course with fresh eyes.

Figure 1. Course goals drive our choices of content, methods, and readings, which drive our assessments, and help us meet our goals.

Figure 1. Course goals drive our choices of content, methods, and readings, which drive our assessments, and help us meet our goals.

I believe a course works best when driven by a vision and purpose and when the components of that course all work toward actualizing that vision and those purposes. This means that I ask a series of questions when prepping a course: What do I want to do this semester? What do I want my students to learn? Do my assignments and exams help my students meet our goals? Do my assignments and exams assess whether I’ve been successful in helping my students meet these goals? See Figure 1.

Yes, I want my students to read assigned readings, listen to my lectures, conduct surveys, and observe field work, but these are just my methods for achieving my larger course objectives (Fisher, 2011). These are my goals for Abnormal Psychology:

  1. We will discuss symptoms associated with psychiatric disorders, then consider how those symptoms are seen in real people.
  2. We will think about the disorders as on a continuum, related to “normal behavior,” but with more frequent and severe symptoms that cause problems in day-to-day living.
  3. We will use psychological principles and theories to understand client problems and direct treatment, while considering the strengths and weaknesses of each explanation.
  4. We will develop greater understanding and empathy for other people, especially people with psychiatric problems.

Quizzes and exams serve a purpose, as they reinforce reading and studying; however, they often best assess memorization or recognition skills, rather than my students’ ability to understand and use course ideas. It’s often difficult assessing complex and ambitious goals with multiple choice and short answer questions. Consider, for example, these two questions:

  1. Identify at least five symptoms of major depressive disorder.
  2. Name the three neurotransmitters believed to be involved in creating the symptoms of major depressive disorder.
Figure 2. Revision of Bloom's taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

Figure 2. Revision of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

These questions might adequately assess factual knowledge, but do little to engage students with the material, excite them about the field, or develop skills higher on Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). See Figure 2. In fact, they could be “well-answered” with a cursory internet search.

Back to my goals: I want my students to recognize and remember diagnoses from the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, but I also want them them to do the important work of applying this knowledge to case examples, considering the roles of culture and context in presenting symptoms, and responding to people (with or without mental health concerns) with greater empathy. I sometimes think that we use multiple choice and short answer exams much in the same way the woman in the old story searches for her keys:  she looks under the streetlight, despite losing them down the street. We use such exams because they’re easier to write and grade than other kinds of assessments.

I want my students to recognize and use psychological terminology, so multiple choice exams still have an important place in my course, especially as many of my questions also assess skills in application; however, I’m also interested in helping my students develop higher skills on Bloom’s taxonomy. My assignments should foster and assess those skills. In the question below, for example, my students are asked to determine whether Belle could be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and, if so, which one:

Belle, aged 12, has run into minor problems in school over the last several years. As a result, she was referred for an intellectual assessment by her school psychologist, who reported that her Full Scale IQ was 66, with Verbal IQ of 67 and  Performance IQ of 65. Her psychologist noted that Belle was tired and distractible, and discovered that she had been up most of the night before with her sick father, caring for him. He also noted that, despite Belle’s problems in school, Belle is capable of reading at grade level and especially enjoys Tolkien’s trilogy, The lord of the rings. Belle is responsible for most of the family’s cooking and cleaning, and is even helping market her father’s inventions.

At first glance it looks like Belle meets criteria for a diagnosis of an intellectual disability (mental retardation in the DSM-IV). Nonetheless, stronger students recognize that she should not receive this diagnosis and tell me why: although she meets criteria on standardized testing, she does not have deficits in adaptive functioning (i.e., she is reading at grade level, cooking and cleaning for the family, and marketing her father’s inventions). She appears to meet or even exceed “developmental and sociocultural standards for personal independence and social responsibility” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 33).

Although my last example asked for some higher order skills, this next assignment gets students to move beyond diagnoses to develop skills that are essential to clinical work and empathic thinking:

Choose a movie character from the attached list (you can get others approved). Briefly summarize the plot of the movie in no more than one paragraph, then (a) identify the presenting symptoms of the person in the movie, (b) diagnose this person, indicating why your diagnosis makes sense and why other, similar diagnoses are not applicable, (c) consider the role of contextual variables (e.g., gender, race, culture, history, and situation) in symptom presentation and experience, and (d) describe what sort of treatment(s) you might use to address this person’s symptoms and why (your response cannot be only medication, although it might include medication).

This paper asks my students to demonstrate and use knowledge at most levels of the understanding, applying, and analyzing dimensions on Bloom’s taxonomy. See Table 1. Compare this question with the first ones, then consider how students might prepare for each exam and what skills they might develop by the end of the course.  Which builds and assesses my course goals most effectively?

Table 1. Expanding Bloom's taxonomy to include higher forms of knowledge (Fisher, 2011). Fisher's table includes linked examples for each cell and is well worth the visit.

Table 1. Expanding Bloom’s taxonomy to include higher forms of knowledge (Fisher, 2011). Fisher’s table includes linked examples for each cell and is well worth the visit.

I enjoy using this assignment, as students approach it with fresh eyes, often make me think about the character and assessment process differently, and frequently demonstrate skills that they hadn’t believed themselves capable of developing. Their doing so makes the class more interesting and engaging for me, as well. This has at least two important consequences: they learn more when they are interested and engaged by our discussions, but also, when they have engaged me, I am more willing to go the extra mile.

In this age of accountability, we are asked to consider whether we are building the skills our students need ― and we often respond with cynicism. Nonetheless, assessments can offer important feedback when they are tied to a teacher’s larger vision for the course and function as an integral part of that course and its assignments.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Longman.

Fisher, D. (2011). How to write objectives. Oregon State University Extended Campus. Retrieved from

This piece especially profited from Melissa K. Downes’ thoughtful and insightful comments on an earlier draft.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

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