Our students don’t read…

Our students don’t read test questions very carefully. At the University of Toronto, our introductory courses for life science students feature tests that typically include a combination of multiple choice and short-answer questions, with more weighting placed on the latter. On a recent first-year undergraduate organic chemistry term test, the average student mark was 63%. However, it was estimated by the test graders — the course instructor and eight graduate teaching assistants — that this average could and should have been roughly 10% higher, had students read questions with more care. As an example, one question asked students to explain the stability of a particular molecule IN LESS THAN 10 WORDS — emphasis reproduced verbatim from the test paper. An extraordinary number of students wrote unnecessary “mini-essays” that were much longer than 10 words, thereby, wasting valuable time. In a second instance, students had to draw several resonance forms of methyl cyanoacrylate, the active compound in many superglues, and circle the most significant contributor to the resonance hybrid. Surprisingly, many students did not circle any of the resonance forms at all!

Undergraduates and faculty members are understandably frustrated when assessment grades are lower than they might otherwise be due to misreading of unambiguously-worded questions. However, as instructors, we are not in the habit of writing tricky multiple choice questions of the type where students are confronted with “all of the above”, “none of the above” and “three of the above” as potentially correct responses. We also ask at least one colleague to proofread any test that we write, and routinely make changes to clarify and hone question composition based on their detailed feedback. What we are talking about is not a problem with the wording of the test questions, but rather an issue with reading all of the words in each question carefully and remembering to follow all of the steps appropriately.

The problem of less-than-careful student test reading has been reoccurring for a number of years, and appears to be getting worse. We have a theory — and it is only a theory — that the way students use the internet is partly to blame. When people read a text article online, they usually browse to get the minimum information necessary. They don’t take the time to process every word, because it isn’t necessary — they will still be readily able to discuss the gist of the article with friends. Adopting this approach in a test, however, is obviously fatal. Misreading a single word in a question (oops... did that say hexane or cyclohexane? Do I need to draw the least stable or most stable conformation?), or even skipping over words/sentences completely means that it is impossible to earn a perfect mark on that question. Brevity is often highly valued in our society (think of text messages and Twitter). That’s fine in situations where detail is of minimal importance. Chemistry midterms and final examinations are certainly not such situations.

We appreciate that writing a term test can be a highly stressful situation for students, particularly undergraduates in their first semester at university. We also understand that it isn’t possible for students to completely simulate the pressurized test-writing experience ahead of time in their college dorms. But… as faculty at the University of Toronto we do try to help by providing students with a detailed guide to chemistry test preparation, writing and reflection ahead of time.1 This article discusses strategies to lessen anxiety, such as avoiding getting to the test room too early and going over concepts with other students, and not trying to learn brand-new material on test day. Some students take this advice on board, but many don’t. Why should this be so? Perhaps undergraduates underestimate what it is like to write a test under highly-controlled conditions where, for example, no extra time will be given at the end. Perhaps, in their studying, they have been relatively passive (reading the required textbook whilst highlighting “key points” in bright yellow), and are now confronted with having to write formulae and draw molecules for the first time. Perhaps there exists a general level of (over)confidence going into the first test, based upon excellent high school grades...

Maybe many students have to experience the disappointment of lower test grades in order to become more accomplished at reading questions carefully, and to become more effective at studying and writing tests in general. As university instructors, we simply wish that this was not the case! Beyond the artificial environment of the test centre, paying attention to detail and diligent reading are undoubtedly of the utmost importance as fundamental life skills. Is there anything that we can do in conjunction with high school teachers to improve this ongoing situation?


I would like to thank Dr. Kristine Quinlan for some very helpful comments regarding this article.

Literature cited

  1. Some Do’s and Don'ts of Chemistry Tests: Prepare, Write and Reflect, K.B. Quinlan and A.P. Dicks, Chem 13 News 2015, 18-19