Can a) b) c) d) Assess Understanding?

As an information technology (IT) faculty member teaching in the systems and networking side of the camp (rather than development), I have always found it important to assess students’ clear understanding of and ability to discuss computing technologies. Because IT is an applied discipline, this understanding is different than what computer science students require.  As an example, IT students need to grasp how DNS functions and how it communicates with clients and other services, then be able to configure it on multiple server operating systems. They do not, however, need to understand the intricacies of shaping the DNS packet to optimize traffic on a network or be able to develop a new DNS application for a network appliance.

Most any college student can press next or follow a step-by-step guide to get some computing technology to work.  But IT students need to troubleshoot problems, apply guides to their own specific environment, integrate technologies, apply security, optimize performance, and be able to quickly adapt to new or changing technologies.  They do this by possessing knowledge of the underpinnings of the computing technology.  As such, labs that I give students are more of a task list to complete rather than a step-by-step recipe.

IT students also need to learn to communicate about computing technologies within an organization and not have to do a Google search in the midst of talking to others (technical or non-technical) about these technologies.  Because of this, exam/quiz questions I give to students are not multiple-choice or true/false in nature.  Much to their chagrin, students are asked to describe some piece of computing technology, how it communicates with the network, how to secure it, and its implications for other services or devices.

Perhaps this is just my own tired bias against multiple-choice rearing its head.  As a student, I always thought multiple-choice questions fell into two categories; very easy or trick questions.  Knowing an exam was going to be multiple-choice resulted in a lack of studying on my part, assured that a decent grade was within my grasp just because of the exam format.  I tell my students that they will rarely get a multiple-choice question in the real world, and certainly not trick questions; instead they will need to be able to discuss and comprehend computing technologies.

With rising class sizes within my own department and no teaching assistants though, I worry about how long I will be able to sustain my favored assessments.  Can I determine if a student truly understands DNS (or any other type of computing technology) and be able to logically talk about it by using a more efficient grading mechanism?  Do I fail to see the strength of good multiple-choice questions?  What are your experiences?

About Mark Stockman

Associate Professor, Information Technology University of Cincinnati @putrnrd
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One Response to Can a) b) c) d) Assess Understanding?

  1. Amber.Settle says:

    I’m not a fan of multiple choice exams either, and up until last year I would have said that there was no place for them in the computing curriculum. Then I worked with a graduate student from Northwestern on a project involving peer instruction. In her project the students answered multiple-choice questions about some code (Python, although it could have been any programming language), discussed the question among themselves, and then answered the question again. The questions were very carefully constructed to contain both the correct answer and answers that would arise from various misunderstandings of the code. The students learned so much from those exercises! Of course, it wasn’t just the questions that enabled the learning, but also the discussion between the students. So I think that there is a place for multiple-choice questions, although I don’t necessarily think that traditional assessments are that place.

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