When Dr. Thomas Mennella flipped his biology class, he found that his old tests were not working. So he changed his exam approach, too.
Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the Applied Laboratory Science and Operations,Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts
PhD in Molecular Genetics (Transcription), BS in Biology
When Tom Mennella, PhD, associate professor of Biology at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, first started flipping his instruction, he left his assessment approach alone—for a while.
“I gave typical college exams: fill-in-the-blank, true or false, and short-answer questions,” says Mennella. “Then I started to notice that students would come to office hours, and they would know the material inside and out, but when I would grade their exams, I’d be shocked at how badly they’d done. I polled those students about what had happened, and they said it was test anxiety.”
He realized that traditional methods of assessment were not a good match for his new teaching style. “I want students to be thinking very critically in an applied way,” says Mennella. “So, my exams can’t test memorization, which I de-emphasized after I flipped.”
In response, Mennella developed two low-key assessment techniques—eReports and mastery checks. Below, he shares an in-depth look at each.
“Oftentimes something will sound new and innovative and shiny, and you gravitate to it, and sometimes that works. In this case, this is the cherry on top of a new way of teaching. eReports and mastery checks are the culmination of that new style.”
-Thomas Mennella, PhD
Course: BIO320 Cell & Molecular Biology
Course description: A study of eukaryotic cell structure, function and regulation. DNA structure, replication, transcription, and translation will be stressed, as well as genetic engineering and recombinant DNA techniques.
Mennella’s tips for upgrading assessments for a flipped class
Mennella uses flipped learning, so an active learning–style assessment makes sense as part of an overall active method of teaching. The assessment method he created has two main components: eReports and mastery checks.
But first, he offers this caveat: “I think this [approach] would be detrimental to students if you weren’t using a new, active learning–style approach to teaching,” Mennella says. “This is the cherry on top of a new way of teaching. eReports and mastery checks are the culmination of that new style.”
That said, here are Mennella’s top tips for active learning–style assessments that put learning on display and students at ease. It all begins with how he introduces the approach.
The Montillation of Traxoline: A lesson in learning versus understanding
Mennella believes it is important to thoughtfully prepare students for a new learning and assessment paradigm, and he does this with a demonstration that shows the difference between learning and understanding. He attributes the text of the exercise to Judy Lanier, an instructor at Michigan State University.
On the first day of the semester, Mennella comes into class late and says they need to jump right into the material. He then projects a paragraph about “The Montillation of Traxoline.” Not only is this a fictional molecule, but the paragraph is riddled with made-up words. Here is an excerpt: “Traxoline is a new form of zionter. It is montilled in Ceristanna.”
After the class reads the paragraph, Mennella asks students to restate it in their own words. No one can, of course, because there is nothing in the paragraph that can be understood. But he then asks students to answer a series of questions about the paragraph. And they can. For example, when Mennella asks students, “Where is traxoline montilled?” they answer “in Ceristanna.” They got the right answer, even though the content they are using is gibberish.
This activity drives home the point that being able to memorize facts does not mean that they understand the concepts. This sets the stage for the next step—switching to a new type of assessment.
eReports: A multimedia way to showcase knowledge
Every few weeks, Mennella’s students create an eReport, which is a narrated multimedia project (usually a video) in which they teach the key course concepts back to him. They get to create it at home—in a low-stakes, untimed environment. This is what keeps anxiety at bay.
“The adage that ‘you never really understand something until you can teach it to someone else’ seems to be quite true in my experience,” says Mennella. “eReports provide students with an opportunity to do just that.”
Using Mennella’s detailed rubric as a guide, students work on these 20- to 30-minute videos over a number of weeks. They put concepts into their own words and include images that they create or find online.
To prepare and focus students, Mennella shows them snippets of past student projects in a variety of formats, including animated sitcoms, more traditional instructional videos, and illustrated slide presentations.
Mastery-check meetings: A face-to-face chat about chapters
Right after Mennella’s students submit their eReports, he launches “mastery-check week.” Each student sits down with him for a 10-minute, one-on-one conversation about the unit’s material. He does not prepare questions ahead of time, but he does use a rubric. And he simply chats with students about the material to check for understanding.
For Mennella, the meeting functions as a sort of oral exam, though he does not frame it that way with students. In fact, he does his best to make it not seem like an oral exam at all.
“There’s a power dynamic in the office, so I conduct these mastery checks in a classroom, where students feel more comfortable,” he says. “We talk through the concepts covered in their eReports, and I ask probing follow-up questions. I might even ask them to draw a biological process on a piece of scratch paper.”
Mennella finds that these conversations give students an opportunity to show what they do know, which feels better than marking them down for what they do not.
“Exams are the most artificial measure of learning,” Mennella says. “How many times does your supervisor at a job put a packet of questions in front of you? A supervisor, in reality, might ask you to explain something, though.
“This combination of eReports and mastery checks more closely aligns with what students will be expected to do in the workplace. It’s also less stressful than traditional exams,” he notes. “In the end, students demonstrate their learning to me, while also creating something that they are truly proud of. I can’t think of any better outcome in a college course than that.”