Field of Science

Changing exams

I just handed out a math assessment in my physical chemistry class, the same one I’ve used for the last several years. I generally don’t re-use exams (though I know colleagues who do), though I do re-use questions. By now I’ve been creating exams for more than a quarter of a century, and I wonder what the drift has been like over that time. How are the questions I ask now different (or not!) from what I asked 25 years ago? Or have the questions remained the same, and just the answers changed?

Fueling my introspection are the selections from the University of London’s 19th century bachelor’s degree exams. (H/T to a tweet from Nature Chemistry and the RSC). The chemistry question is one I could envision asking my students on an exam: “Explain the nature, from a chemical point of view, of the chief operations involved in the production of a photograph.”

The only catch, of course, is that the answer I’m expecting could be quite different than what the examiners in 1892 expected. In 1892, production of a photographic print necessarily involved silver, developers and fixing agents — and a darkroom. In 2011, production of a print could involve silicon and germanium, and a clean room. The theoretical underpinnings are less about pH and solution chemistry and more about semi-conductors and quantum mechanics.

What other reasonable exam questions might I ask, where the answers have changed so dramatically?

(And you have to love the example English question - just how important were werewolves in the 19th century?)

Photo of 39/365 Kodak Vigilant Six-20 Antique Camera, by M.Christian on Flickr.