Embedding real-time feedback loops in exams

One of the interesting things about teaching an engineering class is that it’s usually really straightforward to check whether a solution to a problem is correct.1 Most students don’t take the time to do this, though.

To help build this habit, I started implementing a feedback loop into exams by requiring students to not only solve a problem, but also demonstrate that it’s correct using an independent calculation or approach.

I want to share a few observations why I like this.

  • Students get really engaged in exam problems. The first time I tried this, I couldn’t believe the level of emotion I saw on paper. On the problems where I include the feedback loop, I saw things written at the bottom of their solution ranging from “!!!!!!” when they proved they got it correct, to a perplexed, hand-drawn :-/ when things obviously aren’t working out.

  • It trains them to always verify whether their work is correct or not. Students immediately know how well they did. In a sense, I think this leads to a type of self-reliance. They’re not at my mercy to know their grade–they already know how well they understood the material.

  • Exam performance is much better. Students catch more mistakes, more quickly. I love seeing that a student caught a massive mistake which might have cost them significantly otherwise.

  • Exams are more efficient to grade. The feedback step often gives insight in diagnosing problems in the solution. Sometimes, while the student may not have time to re-solve the problem after realizing a mistake, they will point out where things went wrong and why. They’re doing my job for me.

At the end of the day, knowing how to know when you’re right is a key skill for a practicing engineer. The more we can embed notions of ethics in even basic material, the closer we come to producing excellent, reliable engineers.

  1. Your mileage may vary in other disciplines. In statics, though, we can always verify equilibrium from any vantage point. 

You can read more about me, follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by RSS or email, and find many more posts in the archives.