How I write a test

I take considerable care and time in writing the tests for this course. Perhaps my telling you how I go about it will help you prepare better for the tests this semester.

What do I ask about?

I go through each unit of a course asking: What is the most important thing to know in this unit? Right below this question is another similar question: What are the most important things to know to grasp this most important thing? I write tests that see if you know those things.

This means that one thing I am testing for is to see if you understand the material well enough to locate the significance of information beyond the mastery of it. Thus, to simply memorize material will only get you so far on the exam. To learn the material of the course, you will understand at the level where you have learned about the rhetoric of public life above the level of particular information. This is a key purpose of the lectures and our discussion. And, it should govern your discussion in your abstracts.

How does this testing get translated into questions?

There are four levels of knowledge that I test in this course. I put together exams that challenge you to achieve each level of knowledge. The levels are hierarchically more complex. Some students will master only level 1 and have a lower grade. Others will know the material so thoroughly that they do well right up to level 4 and will have high grades. The point is that I am testing you not just on the percentage of material from the course you know but on how thoroughly and complexly you know the material.

Level 1: Memorization of facts.

There are certain facts – characteristics of the rhetoric, of public life, and of the speeches of the different communities we study – that you should master. Although I try to emphasize the facts about the rhetoric rather than about life in those times and places, I don't want to make too much of this distinction because they overlap considerably and I don't want you to be misled about what I will ask. This first level of question – recall of information – is tested in multiple choice, fill in the blanks, and short answer questions.

You may notice I did not mention matching questions here. If you have to rely on memorizing speeches to answer those questions you will have trouble. No substitute for old-fashioned studying here. Just memorizing the important characteristics. But the whole course is designed to help you in this task by developing levels 2 and 3 knowledge in discussion. This is why those who miss class or do not participate in discussion do not do as well on exams. The individual facts involved will be better assimilated if you do so by seeking to understand how they fit together into the public life of the communities we study. In short, don't consider them isolated facts; understand them in their relationship to the communities in which they are seated. Notes are available on line for studying, but there is no substitute for lectures and discussion to move you to this more integrative level of understanding. Notes on the page cannot accomplish that.

By the way, there is a type of memorization of speeches that will help you. Because I think that being able to recite the most important eloquence of American speakers is both cool and productive of understanding how we arrived at our current moment, each test will contain an opportunity for extra credit for your memorizing key sections of one of the speeches we study.

Level 2: Comparative and tracking questions.

Some people mistakenly believe that testing is just about how much you memorize. It is not. Recall is just the first step to thoroughly knowing the material. A higher level of question tests whether you know the material you have studied well enough to work it in relationship to other material you have mastered. For example, I might ask you to compare characteristics of the rhetoric of New England with that of the Virginia frontier. In the process of comparison and contrast you should demonstrate your knowledge of the different communities and how speaking varies across communities and across time. Ultimately this type of question develops late in the course into a tracking question where I ask you to take some rhetorical characteristics – say the puritan jeremiad – and track its evolution across the communities and times we have studied.

I test this question in comparative multiple choice questions and comparative short answer questions. As you turn from studying one community to studying another, actively pursue this comparative dimension. It will help you retain the level 1 knowledge if you see it coming and going from one community to the next. And, tracking questions will give you the comprehensive knowledge of American speaking that will pay off in the final examination.

Level 3: Application of your knowledge of communities to specific rhetoric.

At the next more sophisticated level I will ask you to take the general knowledge of characteristics and public life of the community and apply it to actual discourse from that community. I might ask you to compare the characteristics of puritan speaking to the puritan speeches we have studied.

The material for this type of question consumes most of our discussion time in class. I test this knowledge in the matching questions, in application multiple choice questions, and in application short answer questions. Your abstracts are the absolute best way to achieve this level of knowledge. You cannot do them properly without getting to this level. There is a tension between the generalizations we make about the rhetoric of the communities and the individual manifestations of that rhetoric in particular community situations. So, you will see some of those characteristics clearly present in the speeches you study, and others not there. Realizing this tension will deepen your appreciation for the character of public life in the community, but will also heighten your appreciation for the adaptation to situation that requires every community to have a public life.

Level 4: Producing rhetoric in the community.

I have told you that one knows this material thoroughly when one can produce rhetoric that would be recognized and have impact if the person were in that community. This is the most sophisticated level of question.

I test whether you have reached this level of knowledge by giving you a situation people in a particular community have found themselves in and ask you to produce rhetoric that might have been heard in that community in that situation. Answers to such a question require you to recall the rhetorical characteristics of rhetoric in the community and incorporate those characteristics into the type of response that would mark public life in that community.

The only real way to study for this is to posit situations that might have been encountered in those communities and invent discourse that might have been heard. Having study partners will help on this because one can invent and the others critique. How closely does the invented discourse sound like the examples you have read? Help the inventional skills of the members of the study group develop. I will provide you some example situations as we go along, but you can invent some yourself from what are defined as public matters in each community

Notice that level 1 knowledge informs all the other levels, so it is indeed basic. Levels 2 and 3 knowledge deepen and increase the complexity of your level 1 knowledge. So working at those levels will help with the basic knowledge. And, level 4 questions mark your firm mastery of the material. Your historical imagination has developed to the point where you can be a member of that community, at least rhetorically.

There it is. The four levels of knowledge I test. Good luck on preparing for the exam.

Return to Home Page