Students' Perceptions of Their Grades throughout an Introductory Biology Course: Effect of Open-Book Testing
Jensen, Philip A., Moore, Randy, Journal of College Science Teaching
Students enter introductory biology courses with exceedingly high expectations regarding the grades they will earn and the effort they will put forth during the course. Indeed, on the first day of class, virtually all students believe that they will earn an A or B in the course, that they will attend virtually all classes and help sessions, and that they will take advantage of all the opportunities to earn extra credit (Moore 2006). These expectations are unrealistic; most students earn significantly lower grades, skip more classes, miss more help sessions, and turn in fewer extra-credit assignments than predicted (Moore 2006; Moore and Jensen 2007). Clearly, students have unrealistic expectations at the beginning of a semester regarding their upcoming performances in introductory biology courses.
Exams throughout a semester inform students of their academic progress, and presumably influence students' investments of academic effort. For example, poor grades on the semester's first exam would presumably inform students that they need to work harder if they want to make the grades that they predicted they would earn. This feedback should, in turn, help students adjust their expectations to match their actual outcomes. But do they?
In this study, we examined students' perceptions of their grades throughout an introductory biology course. We wanted to answer several questions. For example, at the beginning of a semester, do students have realistic views of their eventual final grades? Is there a point during the semester when students accept more realistic views of their eventual grades in a college biology course? If so, when is it? Does this point coincide with a particular event in the course, such as any of the midterm exams? And finally, how are students' grade expectations influenced by the types of exams used during the course? Large majorities of students prefer open-book exams (Moore and Jensen 2007); how do these exams affect students' perceptions regarding their eventual final grades?
Site of the study and its students
This study included 331 students enrolled in a traditional introductory "mixed-majors" biology course offered at the University of Minnesota during 2005-2006. These students had an average ACT composite score of 19.8, an average high school rank of 57%, an average age of 19, and a gender-distribution of 49% female and 51% male. We excluded students who failed the course because of academic misconduct. All sections of the course were taught by the same instructor in the same classroom with the same syllabus, textbook, grading criteria, and pedagogical approaches. More information about this course is provided elsewhere (Moore 2006).
Exams and grades in control and experimental sections of the course
The course included three equally weighted, equally spaced midterm exams and a comprehensive final exam. All questions on all exams were multiple choice. These exams and their impact on students' final grades were discussed on the first day of class, as was the fact that grades would not be curved. This information was also emphasized in the course syllabus.
Questions on all exams were identical, but the formats of the exams varied in different sections of the course. In the control section (n = 188), exams were traditional, closed-book exams. In the experimental section (n = 143), the first exam was closed book, and the second and third exams were open-book, open-notes exams. All students in both sections took an additional closed-book final exam. The formats of exams were discussed on the first day of classes and in the different sections' syllabi. Students wanting to change from one section to another were allowed to do so, provided they changed sections before the end of the second week of classes (which was three weeks before the first exam). Sections were treated identically in all other facets of the course (e.g. …