The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Give students hints on the exam…but not for free!

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Written by: Jerry Schnepp, Ph.D., Department of Visual Communication Technology at Bowling Green State University

I would like to share with you some details on  a project that allowed students to barter points for hints on an assessment. Here’s how point bartering works in an assessment context:

  • If a student does not know the answer to a question, she can click the “barter” button.
  • This allows her to trade a predetermined point value in exchange for a hint or part of the answer.
  • The student can use the hint to answer the question correctly, but for less credit than those students who did not use this process.

Thus, instead of answering incorrectly and receiving no points, the student can accept a point reduction and potentially find the correct answer. I developed a software program called Point Barter to facilitate these transactions (see image below for an exemplar question).

The Point Barter interface:

point barter

The concept of giving hints on exam questions is nothing new. I’m sure many of you do it in one way or another. That said, a computer program designed to facilitate the process is unique and has two potential advantages:

  • First, it’s completely automated once programmed.
  • Second (and perhaps more compelling), it provides an equitable distribution of hints. That is, strong students who do not need hints can answer correctly without bartering. They earn full points, while weaker students who could use help may choose to sacrifice some points in order to find the correct answer. Students who need a great deal of help may choose to barter multiple times on an assessment, in turn reducing their overall assessment score.

I developed Point Barter after I had been teaching as a graduate student for about ten years. I had just accepted a tenure-track position and I felt compelled to really examine my approach to teaching and assessment. I noticed that grade distributions tended to be bimodal (see image below), with students seeming either well-prepared or ill-prepared for their exams. Most of the time, however, we know that’s not exactly the case. There are plenty of students who study hard, only to find that they can’t remember what they had studied when asked to recall information. I wanted to find a way to give these students the nudge they needed to achieve success, but do so equitably.

A typical assessment distribution

dual modes.png

As I pondered how to do this, I thought about students requesting “hints” during exams in the past to trigger their memory. Upon reflection, I found the idea of rationing hints to be interesting as a learning support to help student recall and spark important memories.

And that’s where point bartering systems, such as the one I developed, seem to have impact. Students who have used the system have reported that often times they “know the answer, but need something to jog [their] memory.” A preliminary study indicated that students learn how to use the barter feature quickly. After using it for several exams, most prefer point bartering to traditional online testing systems such as Canvas, Moodle and Blackboard.

You’re probably thinking, “Of course students like it. It helps them to get better grades.” However, when we conducted a study comparing two sections of the same course, one that used Point Barter and one that did not, the median exam scores were similar. Because students who barter for hints must sacrifice points, scores tended to equalize across test takers.

These similarities in scores did not translate to final exams. Rather, the group that was able to barter points throughout the semester scored significantly higher than those who did not on the identical, cumulative final exam (see chart below). Since the course lectures, assignments and projects were identical for both groups, we assert that using point bartering as part of the assessment process during the semester promoted additional learning. If students were unsure about an answer, they could barter for a hint, thus obtaining new knowledge. Using point bartering, it is possible that students knew more about a given subject after the quiz than they did before, demonstrating potential learning during assessment.

Grade difference between class sections. The experimental group used Point Barter throughout the semester. The control group used Canvas (a non-point bartering assessment platform).

post test.png

After having read about the point bartering system I used, I’d welcome comments from the readers of the SoTL Advocate. Please consider commenting on the following questions, or asking different questions of your own:

  • Would you use a system like Point Barter?
  • Do you see any problems with it?
  • Do you think that point bartering is particularly suited for certain disciplines or types of assessments?
  • Do you see applications for point bartering outside of academia within a given discipline or field of practice?

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