Rethinking the purpose of tests in theological education

Yesterday, James McGrath asked about the impact of technology on the way that we are teaching our classes. And, he specifically wants to know what impact this does (or should) have on our testing methodology. As he puts it:

I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.

I’ve been wrestling with a similar question in my theology classes for a while now. What exactly is the purpose of an exam in a theology class? The theology exams I took as an undergrad focused primarily on simple recall. As long as I could memorize and retain the information from the notes, I was good to go. Seminary upped the ante by making better use of short-answer essay questions. Even here, though, the focus was on remembering the notes and discussions so I could answer the essay questions properly. But, as McGrath points out, in our technological age, recall simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

So, if recall isn’t the point of a theological test, what is?” What exactly should I be trying to assess? The conclusion that I’ve reached is that a theological exam (I think the purpose of an exam varies from one discipline to the next) should be about what students can do with the knowledge that they have, rather than just what they can recall. And here my emphasis has gone in a slightly different direction than what McGrath proposes. In his post, he focused on the skill of being able to find information. That’s an important skill that should be taught and assessed. But it seems more rightly assessed in papers and other assignments. Since I’m largely training people for ministry, I’ve chosen to focus my examinations more on the students’ ability to use their theological knowledge by applying it to new issues and situations. In other words, I’ve focused my exams on assessing whether students can “think theologically” when they encounter real-life situations in ministry.

But, how do you do that? This, of course, is the challenging question. And, I’m open to suggestions. The way that I decided to do it last year was to redesign my exams entirely around case studies. I would first determine the theological issue that I wanted to examine my students on. Then, I would reflect on how that theological issue has contemporary significance for life and ministry. And finally, I’d create a question that (hopefully) forced students to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, many of which were drawn from my own ministry experiences.

For example, in an exam dealing with theological anthropology, I wanted a question on creation/evolution issues. I could simply have asked the students to write an essay explaining/defending their position. Instead, I went with the following:

You’re having a meeting with a youth leader who has been teaching students that God created humans through evolutionary processes (i.e. theistic evolution) and a parent who is upset because he believes that this contradicts the Bible. How will you handle this discussion? Will you side with one person or the other? Why? What would you like to see happen as the result of the conversation?
The advantages of a case study question like this are (at least):
  • The question itself continues to show students that theology is not an abstract discipline. It has direct bearing on life and ministry. I think a good exam should continue to teach by reinforcing what you think is important.
  • It pushes beyond a mere statement of the students’ position, though it should still elicit that. It asks the student to apply their perspective to a real ministry situation.
  • The final part of the question is there to see if students have made the connection between theological conversations like this and spiritual formation. I want to see if they’re just going to focusing on “winning” the argument, or if they’ll see this as a way of growing people through theological dialog. (We discuss this in class; so it’s not unexpected.)

I did learn some valuable lessons from this last year. First, exams like this take the students a lot longer to complete. I had to make mid-semester adjustments to keep the exams within reason. Second, writing questions like this is harder than I expected. I routinely received good answers from students that weren’t quite what I was looking for. The evolution question above, for example, often elicited responses that said almost nothing about the students own perspective. (They focused more on how to “handle” the situation.)  Since I want that to be a part of the response, I’ll need to adjust the question next time. Third, the students liked the new approach (or they lied to me, one of the two). The exams became opportunities for lively discussion afterward and several students commented that they even shared the exam questions with people at their churches.

What do you think? What should a theology class in a seminary be trying to accomplish, and how do we best assess whether that has happened?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 19, 2010, in Teaching Tips and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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