The logistics of running a practical exam (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series1 I expressed my rationale for replacing my final written exam with a practical exam. The following are some questions I have received in regard to the logistics of a 5-day practical exam.

Q. How are topics chosen for each grade and level?

Each group in my grade 11U2 chemistry class pick their topics from a hat — or beaker. This is done before the practical exam days so the students know their topics but they do not have any details until day 1. They can also trade with other groups as long as there is agreement. The topics are divided into the following categories: Food and Beverage, Forensics, Environment, Health and Beauty, and Material Science.

The grade 12C2 chemistry students, in contrast, make glue, and my Grade 12U students perform a re-worked Rocket Fuel Lab, which was originally created by Steve Sogo.3 I saw Steve present this engaging activity at a ChemEd conference.

Q. Do you provide your students with the entire list of activities/questions? And do they all work through the list in the same order or do students decide the order in any manner they see fit?

The first day of the exam students are given a file folder which contains the following:

  1. relevant MSDS sheets
  2. an in-depth checkbric (marking scheme)
  3. a worksheet which includes:
  • lab overview
  • lab safety
  • pre-lab work
  • lab materials/equipment
  • lab procedure
  • pre-lab calculations
  • space for data collecting and results, analysis questions, error analysis and conclusions.

Students decide the order in which they will proceed; however, most tend to read things over and work on the pre-lab work the first day. Often, students will proceed through the worksheet in a somewhat chronological fashion.

Q. What do the students ultimately hand in?

The final write-up is a complete “lab report”; however, it is written on specifically designed worksheets. As mentioned above, I do include a detailed “checkbric” which students use as a guideline. Suffice to say, they know exactly what they will be evaluated on. I like to keep surprises to a minimum during any exam setting — and this is no different!

Q. Do you grade students on a particular skill by observing them?

During the exam, I am constantly observing, and I have a checklist specifically tailored to each student for each day of the exam. Student marks are divided into two sections.

1.  Written component (55%), including the following:

  • General requirements (i.e., name, date(s) experimental date(s), uncertainty, significant digits, work shown, neatness and organization)
  • Pre-lab work (i.e., pre-lab calculations, MSDS, waste disposal, special safety)
  • Observations
  • Results
  • Analysis/discussion-type questions
  • Conclusion

2.  Skill component (45%), including the following:

  • Team work mark (punctuality, preparedness, contribution, time management, co-operation)
  • Lab work (lab safety, use of equipment, data collection, experimental procedure, clean-up).

Q. What type of aids may the students use/have with them to do the lab final?

Students may feel free to use anything in the classroom but with one exception; students can have no electronics. I, like you, do NOT want to re-invent the wheel every exam cycle. The no-electronics rule prevents students from posting full exams online. As necessary,
I mix things up from semester to semester in order to make the process as fair and valid as possible.

Students may leave the classroom at any time to research anything they desire — they may NOT take their specifically designed worksheets with them. I monitor them as they come and go from my classroom. I am well aware they discuss the exam outside the classroom. I’m okay with that, and I actually encourage it! I would like to promote the notion that scientists share information freely and do not necessarily keep their findings a secret.

Q. Do you leave the setup in the lab for the entire five days? If yes, how do you arrange it so that other science teachers are not unduly imposed upon?

The students clean up each day by labelling and then putting all their equipment into a bin. Because nothing is left out, other teachers are never adversely affected. To date, I am thankful not to have had any problems with stealing, moving equipment or sabotaging results.

Q. How many “billable hours”, so to speak, does it take you to prepare for the practical exam?

The first semester I did the practical exam it took a fair bit of time for set-up because I personally ran each of the labs. I created material/equipment lists, specialized worksheets and set up the general organization of the exam. But now I have exhaustive lists of the materials for each lab. The worksheets are mostly done and just need to be tweaked and changed a bit. I keep the photocopied MSDS sheets from year to year. Even the file folders are kept. Last semester, I got everything ready in a couple of hours after school.

Q. Do students find the concept of the lab final stressful? Tell me the feedback you receive.

The word “exam” by any other name or any other incarnation will doubtless produce stress for students.
I was most concerned about the grade 11 students because their only experience with lab exams are 30-station bell ringers performed in the grade 10 science classes. Take heart, though; my experience has shown that shortly after the folder is opened on day 1, the grade 11s — like all the other grades — become extremely focused on the required tasks. Many students have commented that it was the best exam experience they have ever had! Additionally, the students enjoy the fact that, when their chemistry exam is over, they can concentrate on their other exams that occur within the seemingly ever-decreasing window of time called the exam period!

There is so much more I would like to explain. If I was unable to answer all of your questions, email Jean Hein, and I will make sure to get your questions answered. Better yet, attend Chem Ed 2017 in South Dakota where my colleague and I hope to present the labs we use for practical tests and exams.

  1. Y. Clifford, Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Teacher replaces written final with a practical exam (Part 1), Chem 13 News, October 2016
  2. In Ontario “U” courses are university-bound students and “C” are college-bound.

Lab: Launching Rockets by Steve Sogo