The national certification exam as a faculty development experience

Applying large-scale assessment ideas to small classes
Brian Chiswell
By Brian Chiswell
Sept. 16, 2020

If you are considering volunteering to serve on a team involved in the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology certification exam, I strongly recommend it based on my own experience.

The ASBMB in each of the last two years scored almost 1,000 exams. Here, ASBMB
staff members Quira Zeidan, Kirsten Block and Stephanie Paxson prepare the exams
for mailing.

Five years ago, I helped to score a single question for the ASBMB certification exam, which is offered to college juniors and seniors enrolled in ASBMB-accredited programs and is designed to test their understanding of the core competencies in biochemistry and molecular biology. Little did I know the effect this activity would have on my thinking and the impact it would have on my own test question writing. Since that time, I have worked each year on small committees of bright, motivated faculty to write new questions for the ASBMB exam and to create and refine rubrics for existing questions.

Working with the ASBMB has allowed me to take a hard look at three important components of written assessment: writing questions, writing rubrics and scoring answers. My classroom instruction is guided mainly by how I want students to think their way through an answer. Without each component of the written assessment aligning and synergizing with the others, there is a risk that the questions are not fair, not actually assessing what I had hoped or not requiring the students to think. Working on these exam committees has changed my mindset, so I am more aware of these issues when working on my own exams.

I have learned a few things from colleagues who are members of or work at the ASBMB. These lessons ensure fairness to the student, promote consistency in grading, and bring deserved attention to question and rubric details.

Lesson 1: The person or committee that writes an exam question ideally should not be the one to write the rubric or score the answers. When we write a question, we are already biased toward an answer.

Lesson 2: The exam should be anonymous when graded, especially if you know the student.

Lesson 3: Exams should be scored by more than one scorer and interrater reliability should be calculated and addressed.

Lesson 4: Questions should be reevaluated and improved after each time the test is administered.

Lesson 5: Each question should be graded from all exams at the same time.

Lesson 6: Questions should target different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to create an exam that also can be a useful teaching diagnostic tool. We should aspire to teach students to analyze, evaluate and create, so categorizing questions in this manner will diagnose how well we are teaching these skills.

The ASBMB in each of the last two years scored almost 1,000 exams, so it is a large-scale process. The ideas above can be applied on a smaller scale in your department. For example, choose your toughest question to grade and ask a few colleagues to score an answer to check if interrater reliability is an issue. Instead of asking a peer to take one of your exams, ask them to take a five-question quiz containing the five new questions you are vetting for this year's final. Also, another professor teaching the same subject could help you with a rubric to make sure it is objective, not overly biased toward what you remember saying in lecture.

Written assessments are difficult to develop, and we should develop them together.

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Brian Chiswell
Brian Chiswell

Brian Chiswell received a B.S. in biology from Francis Marion University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of South Carolina. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale University School of Medicine in the department of pharmacology and then spent three years performing discovery-stage research in the biotechnology industry. He is now an associate professor at Touro College in Manhattan. In his undergraduate research lab, students study the molecular detail of cell signaling in stomach cancer oncogenesis.

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