Assessment Case Study - Effective Exams in Geology

Rajeev writes exams in such a way that they are supportive of student learning and improvement. 

Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

July 16, 2018


Dr. Rajeev Nair is a Senior Instructor in the department of Geoscience. He promotes problem-solving and knowledge applications in all of his courses, including GLGY 323: Geochemical Processes. This second-year course is a prerequisite for many other geology courses. The focus of the course is on chemical processes that influence geological formations. Although students come into the course having taken junior-level chemistry courses, most are not fond of the subject. Rajeev hopes to get students engaged by showing them how chemistry can be used as a tool for solving geological problems. They will need to be able to apply chemistry in higher-level courses, but also in their work after graduating. A crucial part of being a successful geologist is making connections between different scientific principles and the problems they need to solve. Most of the assessments in the course are fairly traditional, but Rajeev makes exams very thoughtfully and makes every question require applying and combining concepts.


Exams are the primary assessment method used in the course. Rajeev writes them in such a way that they are supportive of student learning and improvement. Most lower-level geology courses use multiple-choice exams heavily. Students are used to memorizing information rather than applying it. In GLGY 323 however, exams all have a problem-solving focus. The questions require students to find relevant information in datasheets, connect multiple concepts, and apply them to a specific problem. These are challenging questions, since they rely on the creation of new knowledge, not just the understanding of other knowledge.

Finding and applying information is a skill that develops over time, so Rajeev increases the weighting of the three exams in the course. The first is worth 15%, the second is 25% and the final is 40%. This is so students can use the first exam as a lower-stakes learning experience. Some students usually struggle on the first exam. Although they have the expectations and a set of practice questions, they tend to lack the ability to connect information to provide thorough answers. Rajeev provides plenty of personalized feedback after this exam to help students improve. He believes in helping individual learners with their specific problem areas. He is able to dedicate the time to meet individually with students, to go through the questions that challenged them the most. He notes that big reviews of exams tend to be too broad for most students to gain any real value from, unless most students made the same mistakes.

By the time students get to the second exam, they have a better understanding of how to approach and answer questions, but Rajeev still spends a lot of time giving feedback. Sometimes, when going through the answers with him, students demonstrate that they knew what the solution to a problem entailed but had trouble demonstrating and communicating it. Rajeev will add additional points to their grades if the students demonstrate greater understanding than was communicated in the exam. The final exam is most highly weighted, but it has the highest grades. By the end of the course, students are confident in their ability to apply the information and make relevant connections and their performance reflects this.

Although he provides a lot of feedback to students, Rajeev also listens to students’ feedback for him. Sometimes, he admits that questions are not worded as clearly as possible, so he tries to rectify this. He also continually improves the data and resources provided on exams.


This course does not only help students develop their chemistry skills, but also their study skills and their ability to apply their knowledge. To answer these questions, they have to understand and use the content in deep ways. Students have a good baseline of chemistry knowledge to apply in their further practice. Rajeev feels that his objectives and goals for the course are usually met. Student performance on exams improves greatly throughout the course, usually by at least 10%.

Students appreciate the amount of time that Rajeev dedicates to personalized support and feedback. He admits that many other instructors are not able to dedicate as much time as he is to meeting individually with students, but encourages others to try to find ways to personalize feedback. The experience in the course is positive because there is an emphasis on learning. Rajeev highly recommends having multiple weightings for exams because it makes the exams a dynamic learning process, rather than single, summative events. He has found it to be a simple but effective way to help students focus on improvement over time.

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