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Pedagogical Pattern
Self Test

(Version 1.1)
Christoph Steindl
Johannes Kepler University Linz
Linz, Austria
steindl@acm.org

THUMBNAIL

Self tests can be used during exercise courses to let the students determine whether they have understood the theory of the accompanying lecture. First the students try to answer the questions on a questionnaire. Then these questions are solved in a team-work manner. So the students learn by repetition. The important point is that they evaluate their knowledge and get feedback before the repetition.

PROBLEM / ISSUE

The students often feel that the theory presented in lectures is either trivial or hard to understand. In both cases they easily lose interest, and the teacher loses their attention. When they are asked to apply the theory, they fail since they missed some critical points. The issue of that pattern is to motivate the students to first listen more carefully during the presentation of the theory in the lecture, to let them apply the theory in the accompanying exercise and to make them aware of the difficulties before the theory is re-explained in the exercise.

AUDIENCE / CONTEXT

This pattern is appropriate for all kinds of material that is first presented theoretically in a lecture and which shall then be applied practically in exercises.
The students must be prepared to participate actively in the learning process.

FORCES

Several forces, restrictions and goals exist for a classroom lecture:

  1. Time during the lecture
  2. Time for the preparation for the lecture (for teacher and students)
  3. Best possible knowledge transfer
  4. Best possible memorization of knowledge
  5. Fun (for teacher and students)

If there is too much material that must be presented or taught, time is scarce and cannot be wasted or invested in pedagogical games.
The time for the preparation for the lecture should not be overwhelming, not for the teacher and also not for the students.
The best possible knowledge transfer can be reached by communicating the knowledge audio-visually where the students are involved actively and both, the teacher and the students, have fun.
Repetition helps to make knowledge unforgettable.
When the style of lectures resembles a one-way communication, the listeners easily get bored or distracted. When the theory of the lecture shall be applied in an accompanying exercises course, the students fail. If the theory is re-explained, the students fail to see the problems and again miss some subtle or critical points.

SOLUTION

Let the students apply the theory by answering a self test after they have heard the theory once before telling them the theory another time.
Overview
This has the benefit that the students will know where they failed and what they did not understand. So they will listen more closely to the following repetition of the theory.
A drawback is that you lose some time during the exercises course since the students have to answer the questions of the questionnaire. However, this time is well invested: When the answers to the questions are presented, they will know where to ask questions.
Knowledge is memorized much better if it is learnt again and again. Simple repetition is, however, less efficient than a process of explanation, application and re-explanation. The key is that the students try to apply the knowledge before the teacher repeats the explanation. Since the students know that they will have to apply the theory in the exercises by themselves, they might feel encouraged to stay alert during the lecture to understand the critical points.
An advantage is that the exercise becomes much more interactive: the students can ask each other, they can ask the teacher, or work together in small groups. The students are involved actively in the learning process. Additionally, you (the teacher) can walk around the class room while the students answer the questions and look at the answers:

  • If the students do not know how to procede, you can point them into the right direction.
  • If you spot wrong answers, you can ask them why they think that their answer is right.
  • You see who is able to answer the questions and who is not. However, you should not make your observations obvious (would provoke contraindications).

SPECIAL RESOURCES

The teacher must prepare the questionnaires and their answers. However, he can reuse the questionnaires for the examination at the end of the course. The students will appreciate that since they know the kind of questions. The teacher can test how much time the students need to answer the questions. He sees which questions are difficult to answer or are ambiguous. He can use this feedback to make the final examination more predictable and reliable for the students and for himself.

CONTRAINDICATIONS

Students do not like tests. So you have to convince them that you are not interested in the results and that you will not grade them. They have to see the self tests as a chance to evaluate their current knowledge.

RELATED PATTERNS

Design-Do-Redo-Redo (DDRR) Pattern
Design-Implement-Redesign-Reimplement (DIRR) Pattern

EXAMPLE INSTANCES

This pattern has successfully been applied in courses about object-oriented programming and advanced algorithms and data structures at the institute of practical computer science at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz by Christoph Steindl.
The following examples are in German.

Self test 1 (algorithms and data structures) (ps, pdf)Solution (ps, pdf)
Self test 2 (algorithms and data structures) (ps, pdf)Solution (ps, pdf)
Self test 5 (algorithms and data structures) (ps, pdf)Solution (ps, pdf)
Self test 1 (object-oriented programming) (ps, pdf)
Self test 3 (object-oriented programming) (ps, pdf)Solution (ps, pdf)

REFERENCES / ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Thanks to the participants of the Pattern Writing Workshop in Vienna (October 1999) for the feedback.