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Students in Kevin Dougherty's introductory sociology course don't take tests -- they have "learning celebrations."

Courtesy of Megan Marshall

Students entering a classroom to take a test can be filled with a sense of dread. But in one classroom at Baylor University, students in some sections of Introduction to Sociology are greeted by balloons, streamers, bright lights and loud music.

Their professor isn’t administering an exam, they’re told. Instead, they are there to celebrate what they’ve learned.

Kevin Dougherty, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, is trying to reframe the way both students and faculty members approach assessments by changing the environment in which students are evaluated, relabeling quizzes and exams as “learning checks” and “learning celebrations.”

“I’ve banished any talk of quizzes or exams,” he said. “Every time a student says something about a test or a quiz I say, ‘oh no, that’s much too boring for our material.’”

While taking the traditional multiple-choice exam, students may find themselves mentioned in the questions, or see scenarios described in the questions that they may encounter, such as being evicted from a dormitory for having a pet.

Questions From Past 'Learning Celebrations'
Note: Names have been changed from those actually used, which were of students in the course.

John is on a first date with a young lady he really likes. He wears his nicest jeans and shirt, brings flowers, and laughs at all her jokes. Sociologists would describe John’s actions as an example of: (Correct answer: impression management)
Roberta lives in a campus residence hall. Despite rules against pets, she buys a ferret. Her roommate complains to the hall director. The hall director tells Roberta that she must get rid of her ferret. When Roberta refuses, she and her ferret are evicted. The actions of the hall director represent: (Correct answer: formal social control)
Soc 1305 community member Zhixin came to Baylor from China. Now he goes by Jason, speaks English almost exclusively and eats hamburgers at least three times a week. What sociological concept does Jason illustrate? (Correct answer: assimilation)
After meeting in Soc 1305, Thomas and Alexis begin dating and eventually marry. In their marriage, they decide to take turns cooking and doing laundry, so that neither is solely responsible for these tasks. They also set up a joint checking account and agree to discuss any purchase over $50 before it is made. What pattern of authority characterizes their marriage? (Correct answer: egalitarian)


By further personally engaging the students in the content of the test, Dougherty said he hopes to drive the concepts that were taught in lectures and readings a little closer to home, to both introduce students to what sociology is and possibly convince them to take more courses on the subject.

“That very ambience as they walked into the room was different in telling ways,” he said. “Just watching students walk in and seeing their countenance change was, I think, an important point.”

Dougherty said he got the idea for the celebrations three years ago while teaching a seminar to graduate students who were preparing to teach for the first time. One day he and a group of students began discussing what was the best way to assess how much students were learning.

“Out of that conversation, a graduate student said, ‘Maybe we could create parties around our exams,’ and I thought, yes, that’s a terrific idea,” Dougherty said.

And he says the approach works. Compared to three semesters of students taking traditional exams to those who take the celebrations, the average score of the assessments increased by nearly two points, which Dougherty partially attributes to the alternative environment.

Nine out of 10 students surveyed in the course said they were in favor of the celebrations, Dougherty wrote in an essay on the celebration for Teaching/Learning Matters last month. But he admitted that some students don’t easily let the old habits die. They still cram before class and discuss possible topics on the test until they are asked to put the materials away.

As researchers, faculty and administrators try to determine the best way to assess how much students have learned, many have praised Dougherty’s approach, saying that it sounds like an effective alternative to the traditional testing measures.

Debates over assessments have evolved throughout the years, from those who argue that rigorous testing is the best way to determine what a student has learned, to some who say tests are too memorization heavy and aren’t accurate measures of learning.

Randy Swing, executive director of the Association for Institutional Research, said grades aren’t always the best way to gauge how much a student has learned because other factors, like confidence and time management, come into play.

Swing noted that students who are part of large introductory courses like introduction to psychology or introduction to sociology, have high failure rates because so many majors require the courses, even though those students may not be interested in the content (Dougherty said this was not the case at Baylor). Swing said the alternative approach to exams could also help to motivate students to stay engaged in the course and become more dedicated to retaining the information, because it’s an indication that the professor cares about them more holistically than just in the academic sphere.

“All of us have experienced having a connection with a faculty member where we worked harder for that person than we might have otherwise. There all kinds of personal reasons, psychological reasons, social reasons for us to want to perform well,” he said. “I think that if this professor signals to his student that there’s a real caring for him, then that’s going to be useful.”

And the more relaxed testing environment could also help to eliminate external factors that could impact scores. Concerns over text anxiety and mental health at colleges have increased in recent years as more and more students report higher levels of stress.

Dougherty also gives his students learning checks every day they are in class, which helps him to determine which concepts the students are grasping and what topics he should review in class. And at the beginning of the semester, students can vote to decide how many of the celebrations they can take.

Dee Fink, author of the book Creating Significant Learning Experiences, said the constant assessing is a sign of a strong professor and can help students to retain information and immediately learn their own weaknesses.

And he said the students being able to vote on the number of assessments helps to give the students a sense of ownership over the course.

“It makes the student feel good about the course and helps get them engaged,” Fink said.

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