Summary: Graders typically work in private with no opportunity to ask even the simplest questions about a student’s submitted work. Interactive Grading is a technique that requires the student to participate in the grading of their work. The aim of this post is to share my experiences with interactive grading, with some tips for others who want to try it. I start with an overview and then provide three detailed examples, with suggestions for the conduct of the session. Let me stress one point: care must be exercised to keep the student comfortable and engaged, and not let the session degenerate into another lecture. In terms of results, most students told me that interactive grading was a good use of their time and that it helped them improve their performance. Several asked me to add more of it to my courses. A few viewed at as more indoctrination. In terms of impact on student grades, they showed marginal improvement.
Interactive grading is not a new idea. I think most instructors have done this for some students at some times. Certainly, I have. So when professor Keith Gallagher described it to me as an important part of his teaching, I didn’t initially understand its significance. I decided to try it myself after several of Keith’s students talked favorably about their classes with him. It wasn’t until I tried it that I realized what I had been missing.
That start came 15 months ago. Since then, I’ve used interactive grading in the online (professional-development) BBST classes, hybrid (online + face-to-face) university software testing classes, and a face-to-face university software metrics course. I’ve used it for exams, essays, and assignments (take-home complex tasks). Overall, it’s been a positive change.
These notes describe my personal experiences and reflections as an instructor. I emphasize this by writing in the very-obvious first person. Your experiences might be different.
What is Interactive Grading?
When I teach, I assign tasks and students submit their work to me for grading.
Usually I review student work in private and give them feedback after I have completed my review.
- When I do interactive grading:
- I meet with the student before I review the work.
- I read the work for the first time while I meet with the student.
- I ask the student questions, often open-ended questions that help me understand what the student was trying to say or achieve. Students often demonstrate that they understood the material better than their submitted work suggests. If they misunderstood part of the task, we can get to the bottom of the misunderstanding and they can try to demonstrate, during this meeting, their ability to do the task that was actually assigned.
- I often coach the student, offering suggestions to improve the student’s strategy or demonstrating how to do parts of the task.
- I typically show the student a grading rubric early in the meeting and assign the grade at the end of the meeting.
- When I explicitly build interactive grading into my class:
- It becomes part of the normal process, rather than an exception for a student who needs special attention. This changes the nature and tone of the discussions.
- Every student knows well in advance what work will be interactively graded and that every student’s work will be handled the same way. This changes how they prepare for the meetings and how they interpret the meetings.
- I can plan later parts of the course around the fact that the students have already had this experience. This changes my course design.
Costs and Benefits of Interactive Grading
Here is a summary of my conclusions. I’ll support this summary later in this report, with more detailed descriptions of what we did and what happened.
Interactive grading feels like it takes more time:
- It takes time to prepare a grading structure that the students can understand (and therefore that I can use effectively when we have the meeting)
- Scheduling can take a lot of time.
- The meetings sometimes run long. It feels as though it takes longer to have the meeting than it would take to grade the work normally.
When I’ve checked my grading times for exams and assignments that I do in the traditional way, I think I actually spend the same amount of time (or more). I also do the same level of preparation. (Note: I do a lot of pre-grading preparation. The contrast might be greater for a less formal grader.)
As far as I can tell, the actual difference for me is not time, it is that interactive grading meetings are more stressful for me than grading in a quiet, comfortable home office. That makes it feel longer.
Benefits for the Students
During interactive grading, I can ask questions like,
- What were you thinking?
- What do you think this word in the question means? If I gave you a different explanation of what this word means, how would that affect your answer to the question?
- Give me an example of what you are describing?
- Can you give me a real-life example of what you are describing? For example, suppose we were working with OpenOffice. How would this come up in that project?
- Can you explain this with a diagram? Show me on my whiteboard.
- How would you answer this if I changed the question’s wording this way?
- How would someone actually do that?
- Why would anyone want to do that task that way? Isn’t there a simpler way to do the same thing?
I will raise the grade for a student who does a good job with these questions. I might say to the student,
“If I was only grading the written answer, you would get a ‘D’. But with your explanation, I am giving you a ‘B’. We need to talk about how you can present what you know better, so that you can get a ‘B’ again on the next exam, when I grade your written answers without an interactive supplement.”
If a student performs poorly on an exam (or an assignment, or an essay), the problem might be weak competence or weak performance.
- A student who doesn’t know the material has no competence.
- A student who knows the material but gives a poor answer on an exam despite that is showing poor performance. For example, you won’t get a good answer from a knowledgeable student who writes poorly or in a disorganized way or who misunderstands the question.
These focusing questions:
- give the student who knows the material a chance to give a much better explanation or a much better defense of their answer.
- give the student who knows the material a chance but performs poorly some indicators of the types of performance improvements they need to work on.
- give the student who doesn’t know the material a clear form of feedback on why they are getting a poor grade.
Let’s consider competence problems. Students might lack the knowledge or the skills they are supposed to be learning for several reasons:
- Some students simply don’t take the time or make the effort to do good work. Interactive grading probably won’t do much for them, beyond helping some of them understand the standards better.
- Some students memorize words that they don’t really understand. The interactive grading discussion helps (some of) them understand a bit better the differences between memorized words and understanding something well enough to explain it in their own words and to explain how to do it or use it or why it’s important. It gives them a path to a different type of answer when they ask themselves while studying, “Do I know this well enough?”
- Some students lack basic student-skills (how to study, how to look things up online, how to use the library, etc.) I can demonstrate these activities during the discussion, having the student do them with me. Students don’t become experts overnight with these, but as I’ll discuss below, I think this sometimes leads to noticeable improvements.
Some of the tasks that I assign to students can be done in a professional way. I choose tasks that I can demonstrate at a professional level of skill. In the give-and-take of interactive grading, I can say, “Let me show you how a professional would do that.” There is a risk of hijacking the discussion, turning it into yet-another-lecture. But judiciously used, this is a very personalized type of coaching of complex skills.
Now consider performance problems. The student understands the material but provides an exam answer or submits an assigned paper that doesn’t adequately reflect what they know, at their level of sophistication. A student with an “A” level of knowledge might look like a “C” student. A student with a “C” level of knowledge might look like a “D” or “F” student. These students are often puzzled by their poor grades. The interactive grading format makes it possible for me to show a student example after example after example of things they are doing (incomprehensible sentences, uninterpretable diagrams, confusing structure, confusing formatting, etc.) and how these make it hard on the reader. Here are two examples:
- Some of my students speak English as a second language. Some speak/write it well; some are trying hard to communicate well but make grammar/spelling errors that don’t interfere with my ability to understand their writing. Some write sentences that I cannot understand. They expect me to guess their meaning and they expect me to bias my guessing in their favor. During interactive grading, I can read a sentence, realize that I can’t understand it, and then ask the student what it means. In some cases, the student had no idea (they were, as far as I can tell, bluffing, hoping I would give them points for nothing). In other cases, the student intended a meaning but they realized during the discussion that they were not conveying that meaning. For some students, this is a surprise. They didn’t realize that they were failing to communicate. Some have said to me that they had previously thought they were being downgraded for minor errors in their writing (spelling, grammar) rather than for writing something that the instructor could not understand. For some students, I think this changes their motivation to improve their writing.
- Some students write disorganized answers, or answers that are organized in a fundamentally different way from the structure explicitly requested by the question. Some students do this strategically (with the goal of disguising their ignorance). Others are simply communicating poorly. In my experience, retraining these students is very hard, but this gives me another opportunity to highlight the problems in the work, to demonstrate how the problems affect how I analyze and evaluate their work, and how they could do it differently. (For more on this, see the discussion in the next section, Benefits for Me).
Benefits for Me
It’s easy to grade “A” work. The student “gets it” and so they get a high grade. When I recognize quickly that the student has met my objectives for a specific exam question, I stop analyzing it, award a very high grade, and move to the next question. Very fast.
In contrast, a typical “C” or “D” answer takes a lot longer to grade. The answer is typically disorganized, confused, hard to understand, rewords the question in an effort to present the question as its answer, seems to make inappropriate assumptions about what I should find obvious, has some mistakes, and/or has contradictions or inconsistencies that make the answer incoherent even though each individual component could be argued to be not-necessarily-wrong.
When I say, “disorganized”, I mean (for example) that if the question asks for parts (1), (2), (3), (4) and (5), the student will give three sections instead that address (in the first one) (1), (3) and (5), (in the second one) (1) and (2) and (in the third one) (3) and (5) with a couple of words from the question about part (4) but no added information.
I waste a lot of time trying to understand these answers. When I grade privately, I read a bad answer over several times, muttering as I try to parse the sentences and map the content to the question that was asked. It’s uncertain work–I constantly question whether I am actually understanding what the student meant and trying to figure out how much benefit of how much doubt I should give the student.
When I do interactive grading with a student, I don’t have to guess. I can say, “The question asked for Part 1. I don’t see an answer directly to Part 1. Can you explain how your answer maps to this part of the question?” I insist that the student map their actual words on the exam to the question that was asked. If they can’t sort it out for me, they can flunk. Next time, based on this experience, they can write in a way that will make it easier to map the answer to the question (make it easier for me to grade; get them a better grade).
This discussion is difficult, it can be unpleasant for the student and for me, I have to be diplomatic and somewhat encouraging or it will become a mess. But I don’t have to struggle alone with not understanding what was written. I can put the burden back on the student.
Some other benefits:
- Students who write essays by copying content without understanding it demonstrate their cluelessness when we grade the essay interactively.
- Students who cheat on a take-home exam (in my experience so far) avoid the interactive grading session, where they would probably demonstrate that they don’t understand their own answers.
- Students who want to haggle with me about their grade have an opportunity to do so without driving me crazy. I now have a way to say, Show me what makes this a ‘B’ instead of arguing with them about individual points or about their situational need for a higher grade.
Maybe the most important benefits:
- (Most) students tell me they like it and many of them ask to do it again (to transform a subsequent task into an interactive-graded one or to add interactive grading in another course)
- Their performance seems to improve, sometimes significantly, which makes the next work easier to grade
- This is highly personalized instruction. The student is getting one-on-one attention from the professor. Many students feel as though they don’t get enough personal attention and this addresses that feeling. It also makes some students a little more confortable with dropping by my office for advice at other times.
A More Detailed Report
Someone who is just trying to learn what interactive grading should stop here. What follows is “nuts and bolts”.
I’ve done interactive grading for three types of work:
- midterm exams
- practical assignments (homework that requires the student to apply something they have learned to a real-life task)
- research essays
The overall process for interactive grading is the same for all three. But I’ve also noticed some differences. Marking exams isn’t the same as marking essays; neither is grading them interactively.
If you’re going to try interactive grading for yourself, the differences among descriptions of how it worked for these might help you make a faster and surer start.
I tell students what “interactive grading” is at the start of the course and I tell them which pieces of their work will be graded interactively. In most courses (in all of my university courses for credit), I tell them that this is a mandatory activity.
Some students choose not to participate in interactive grading sessions. Until now, I would tolerate this and grade their work in the traditional way. However, no one has ever given me a good reason for avoiding these (and I have run into several bad ones). The larger problem for me is that later in the course, when I want to do something that assumes that every student has had the interactive grading experience, it is inappropriate for students who skipped it. In the future, in academic courses, I will reinforce the “mandatory” nature of the activity by assigning a grade of zero on the work to a student who (after being warned of this) chooses not to schedule a grading meeting.
Scheduling the meetings is a challenge. To simplify it, I suggest a Doodle poll (www.doodle.com). Post the times you can be available and let each student sign up for a time (from your list) that s/he is available.
I schedule the meetings for 1.5 hours. They often end at 1 hour. Some drag on. If the meeting’s going to run beyond 2 hours, I usually force the meeting to a conclusion. If I think there will be enough value for the student, I offer to schedule a follow-up meeting to go over the rest of the work. If not, then either I announce the grade at the end of the session or I tell the student that I will grade the rest of the work in the traditional way and get back to them with the total.
During the meeting, the student sits across a desk from me. I use a computer with 3 monitors. Two of the monitors show the same information. I look at one and turn the other toward the student. Thus, the student and I can see the same things without having to crowd together to look over each other’s shoulder at one screen. The third screen faces me. I use it to look at any information that I don’t want to share with the student. I use 27″ monitors (small enough to fit on my desk, big enough to be readable for most students) with 1980×1020 resolution. This easily fits two readable word-processing windows side-by-side, such as the student’s submitted work in one window and the grading guide in the next window.
Example 1: Midterm Exams
In some of my courses, I give the students a list of questions well before the exam and draw the exam questions from the list. In my Software Testing 1 course, for example (the “Black Box Testing Course”), I give students a 100-question subset of this list: http://www.testingeducation.org/BBST/takingexams/ExamEssayQuestions2010.pdf
I outlined the costs and benefits of this approach at WTST 2003, in: http://kaner.com/pdfs/AssessmentTestingCourse.pdf. For our purposes, the most important benefit is that students have time before the exam to prepare an answer to each question. They can’t consult their prepared answers during the actual exam, but this lets them come to the exam well-prepared, with a clear idea of what the question means, how to organize the answer, and what points they want to make in it.
I typically give 2 or 3 midterms in a course and I am typically willing to drop the worst one. Thus the student can do poorly on the first midterm, use that experience to learn how to improve their study strategy and writing, and then do better on the next one(s). I do the interactive grading with the first midterm.
Students sometimes submit exams on paper (traditional, handwritten supervised exam), sometimes in a word processor file (supervised exam where students type at a university-owned computer in a university class/exam-room), sometimes in a word processor file (unsupervised takehome exam). For our purposes, assume that the student submitted an electronic exam.
Before I start grading any student’s work, I prepare a grading guide that identifies the types of information that I expect to see in the answer and the points that are possible for that particular type of info. If you’ve never seen that type of grading structure, look at my slides and videos (“How we grade exams”) at http://www.testingeducation.org/BBST/takingexams/.
Many of my questions are (intentionally) subject to some interpretation. Different students can answer them differently, even reaching contradictory conclusions or covering different technical information, but earn full points. The grading guide will allow for this, offering points for several different clusters of information instead of showing only One True Answer.
During the meeting, I rely frequently on the following documents, which I drag on and off of the shared display:
- The student’s exam
- The grading guide for that exam
- The set of all of the course slides
- The transcripts of the (videotaped) lectures (some or all of my lectures are available to the students on video, rather than given live)
- The assigned papers, if any, that are directly relevant to exam questions.
We work through the exam one question at a time. The inital display is a copy of the exam question and a copy of the student’s answer. I skim it, often running my mouse pointer over the document to show where I am reading. If I stop to focus, I might select a block of text with the mouse, to show what I am working on now.
- If the answer is well done, I’ll just say “good”, announce the grade (“That’s a 10 out of 10″) Then I skip to the next answer.
- If the answer is confusing or sometimes if it is incomplete, I might start the discussion by saying to the student, “Tell me about this.” Without having seen my grading guide, the student tells me about the answer. I ask follow-up questions. For example, sometimes the student makes relevant points that aren’t in the answer itself. I tell the student it’s a good point and ask where that idea is in the written answer. I listed many of my other questions near the start of this report.
- At some point, often early in the discussion, I display my grading guide beside the student’s answer, explain what points I was looking for, and either identify things that are missing or wrong in the student’s answer or ask the student to map their answer to the guide.
- Typically, this makes it clear that the point is not in the answer, and what the grading cost is for that.
- Some students try to haggle with the grading.
- Some simply beg for more points. I ask them to justify the higher grade by showing how their answer provides the information that the grading guide says is required or creditable for this question.
- Some tell me that I should infer from what they did write that they must have known the other points that they didn’t write about and so I should give them credit. I explain that I can only grade what they say, not what they don’t say but I think they know anyway.
- Some agree that their answer as written is incomplete or unclear but they show in this meeting’s discussion that they understand the material much better than their answer suggests. I often give them additional credit, but we’ll talk about why it is that they missed writing down that part of the answer, and how they would structure an answer to a question like this in the future so that their performance on the next exam is better.
- Some students argue with the analysis I present in the guide. Usually this doesn’t work, but sometimes I give strong points for an analysis that is different from mine but justifiable. I might add their analysis to the grading guide as another path to high points for that answer.
- The student might claim that I am expecting the student to know a specific detail (e.g. definition or fact) that wasn’t taught in the course. This is when I search the slides and lecture transcripts and readings, highlighting the various places that the required information appeared. I try to lead from here to a different discussion–How did you miss this? What is the hole in your study strategy?
- Sometimes at the end of the discussion, I ask the student to go to the whiteboard and present a good answer to the question. I do this when I think it will help the student tie together the ideas we’ve discussed, and from doing that, see how to structure answers better in the future. A good presentation (many of them are good enough) might take the assigned grade for the question from a low grade to a higher one. I might say to the student, “That’s a good analysis. Your answer on paper was worth 3/10. I’m going to record a 7/10 to reflect how much better a job you can actually do, but next time we won’t have interactive grading so you’ll have to show me this quality in what you write, not in the meeting. If you give an answer this good on the next exam, you’ll get a 9 or 10.“
In a 1.5 hour meeting, we can only spend a few minutes on each question. A long discussion for a single question runs 20 minutes. One of my tasks is to move the discussion along.
Students often show the same weakness in question after question. Rather than working through the same thing in detail each time, I’ll simply note it. As a common example, I might say to a student
Here’s another case where you answered only 2 of the 3 parts of the question. I think you need to make a habit of writing an outline of your answer, check that the outline covers every part of the question, and then fill in the outline.
Other students were simply unprepared for the exam and most of their answers are simply light on knowledge. Once it’s clear that lack of preparation was the problem (often it becomes clear because the student tells me that was the problem), I speed up the meeting, looking for things to ask or say that might add value (for example complimenting a good structure, even though it is short on details). There is no value in dragging out the meeting. The student knows the work was bad. The grade will be bad. Any time that doesn’t add value will feel like scolding or punishment, rather than instruction.
The goal of the meeting is constructive. I am trying to teach the student how to write the next exam better. We might talk about how the student studied, how the student used peer review of draft answers, how the student outlined or wrote the answer, how the student resolved ambiguities in the question or in the course material — and how the student might do this differently next time.
Especially if the student achieved a weak grade, I remind the student that this is the first of three midterms and that the course grade is based on the best two. So far, the student has lost nothing. If they can do the next two well, they can get a stellar grade. For many students, this is a pleasant and reassuring way to conclude the meeting.
The statistical results of this are unimpressive. For example, in a recent course, 11 students completed the course.
- On midterm 1 (interactively graded) their average grade was 76.7.
- On midterm 2, the average grade was 81.5
- On midterm 3, the average grade was 76.3
- On the final exam, the average grade was 77.8
Remember that I gave students added credit for their oral presentation during interactive grading, which probably added about 10 points to the average grade for midterm 1. Also, I think I grade a little more strictly toward the end of the course and so a B (8/10) answer for midterm 2 might be a B- (7.5) for midterm 3 or the final. Therefore, even though these numbers are flat, my subjective impression of the underlying performance was that it was improving, but this was not a powerful trend.
At the end of the meetings, I asked students whether they felt this was a good use of their time and whether they felt it had helped them. They all told me that it did. In another class (metrics), some students who had gone through interactive grading in the testing course asked for interactive grading of the first metrics midterm. This seemed to be another indicator that they thought the meetings had been helpful and sufficiently pleasant experiences.
This is not a silver bullet, but the students and I feel that it was helpful.
Example 2: Practical Assignments
In my software testing class, I assign tasks that people would do in actual practice. Here are two examples that we have taken to interactive grading:
- The student joins the OpenOffice (OOo) project (https://blogs.apache.org/OOo/entry/you_can_help_us_improve) and reviews unconfirmed bug reports. An unconfirmed bug has been submitted but not yet replicated. The student tries to replicate it and adds notes to the report, perhaps providing a simpler set of steps to get to the failure or information that the failure shows up only on a specific configuration or with specific data. The student also writes a separate report to our class, evaluating the communication quality and the technical quality of the original report. An example of this assignment is here: http://www.testingeducation.org/BBST/bugadvocacy/AssignmentBugEvaluationv11.3.pdf
- The student picks a single variable in OpenOffice Writer (such as the number of rows in a table) and does a domain analysis of it. In the process, the student imagines several (about 20) ways the program could fail as a consequence of an attempt to assign a value to the variable or an attempt to use the variable once that value has been assigned. For each risk (way the program could fail), the student divides the values of the variable into equivalence classes (all the values within the same class should cause the test with that variable and that value to behave the same way) and then decides which one test should be used from each class (typically a boundary value). An example of this assignment is here: http://www.testingeducation.org/BBST/testdesign/AssignmentRiskDomainTestingFall2011.pdf
The Bug Assignment
When I meet with the student about the bug assignment, we review the bug report (and the student’s additions to it and evaluation of it). I start by asking the student to tell me about the bug report. In the discussion, I have several follow-up questions, such as
- how they tried to replicate the report
- why they stopped testing when they did
- why they tested on the configurations they did
- what happened when they looked for similar (often equivalent) bugs in the OOo bug database and whether they learned anything from those other reports,
In many cases, especially if the student’s description is a little confusing, I will bring up OpenOffice and try to replicate the bug myself. Everything I do is on the shared screen.They see what I do while I give a running commentary.
- Sometimes I ask them to walk me through the bug. They tell me what to do. I type what they say. Eventually, they realize that the instructions they wrote into the bug report aren’t as clear or as accurate as they thought.
- Sometimes I try variations on the steps they tried, especially if they failed to replicate the bug.
My commentary might include anecdotes about things that have happened (that I saw or did) at real companies or comments/demonstration of two ways to do essentially the same thing, with the second being simpler or more effective.
When I ask students about similar bugs in the database, most don’t know how to do a good search, so I show them. Then we look at the reports we found and decide whether any are actually relevant.
I also ask the student how the program should work and why they think so. What did they do to learn more about how the program should work? I might search for specifications or try other programs and see what they do.
I will also comment on the clarity and tone of the comments the student added to the OOo bug report, asking the student why they said something a certain way or why they included some details and left out others.
Overall, I am providing different types of feedback:
- Did the student actually do the work that was assigned? Often they don’t do the whole thing. Sometimes they miss critical tasks. Sometimes they misunderstand the task.
- Did the student do the work well? Bug reporting (and therefore this assignment) involves a mixture of persuasive technical writing and technical troubleshooting.
- How well did they communicate? How much did they improve the communication of the original report? How well did they evaluate the communication quality of the original report?
- How well did they troubleshoot? What types of information did they look for? What other types could they have looked for that would probably have been helpful? What parameters did they manipulate and how wise were their choices of values for those parameters?
Thinking again about the distinction between competence and performance,
- Some students show performance problems (for example, they do the task poorly because they habitually follow instructions sloppily). For these students, the main feedback is about their performance problems.
- Some students show competence problems–they are good at following instructions and they can write English sentences, but they need to learn how to do a better job of bug reporting. For these students, the main feedback is what they are already doing well and what professional-quality work of this type looks like.
This is a 4-phase assignment. I try to schedule the interactive grading sessions soon after Phase 1, because Phase 3 is a more sophisticated repetition of Phase 1 (similar task on a different bug report). The ideal case is Phase 1 — Feedback — Phase 3. Students who were able to schedule the sessions this way have told me that the feedback helped them do a much better job on Phase 3.
The Domain Testing Analysis
Every test technique is like a lens that you look through to see the program. It brings some aspects of the program into clear focus, and you test those in a certain way. It pretty much makes the other aspect of the program invisible.
In domain testing, you see a world of variables. Each variable stands out as a distinct individual. Each variable has sets of possible values:
- The set of values that users might try to assign to the variable (the values you might enter into a dialog box, for example). Some of these values are invalid — the variable is not supposed to take on these values and the program should reject them.
- The set of values that the variable might actually take on — other parts of the program will use this variable and so it is interesting to see whether this variable can take on any (“valid”) values that these parts of the program can’t actually handle.
- The set of values that might be output, when this variable is displayed, printed, saved to disk, etc.
These sets overlap, but it is useful to recognize that they often don’t map perfectly onto each other. A test of a specific “invalid” value might be sometimes useful, sometimes uninteresting and sometimes impossible.
For most variables, each of these sets is large and so you would not want to test every value in the set. Instead, domain testing has you group values as equivalent (they will lead to the same test result) and then sample only one or two values from every set of equivalents. This is also called equivalence-class analyis and boundary testing.
One of the most challenging aspects of this task is adopting the narrow focus of the technique. People aren’t used to doing this. Even working professionals — even very skilled and experienced working professionals — may not be used to doing this and might find it very hard to do. (Some did find it very hard, in the BBST:Test Design course that I taught through the Association for Software Testing and in some private corporate classes.)
Imagine an assignment that asks you to generate 15 good tests that are all derived from the same technique. Suppose you imagine a very powerful test (or a test that is interesting for some other reason) that tests that variable of that program (the variable you are focusing on). Is it a good test? Yes. Is it a domain test? Maybe not. If not, then the assignment is telling you to ignore some perfectly good tests that involve the designated variable, maybe in order to generate other tests that look more boring or less powerful. Some people find this confusing. But this is why there are so many test techniques (BBST: Test Design catalogs over 100). Each technique is better for some things and worse for others. If you are trying to learn a specific technique (you can practice a different one tomorrow), then tests that are not generated by that technique are irrelevant to your learning, no matter how good they are in the general scheme of things.
We run into a conflict of intuitions in the practitioner community here. The view that I hold, that you see in BBST, is that the path to high-skill testing is through learning many different techniques at a high level of skill. To generate a diverse collection of good tests, use a diverse set of techniques. To generate a few tests that are optimized for a specific goal, use a technique that is appropriate for that goal. Different goals, different techniques. But to do this, you have to apply a mental discipline while learning. You have to narrow your focus and ask, “If I was a diehard domain tester who had no use for any other technique, how would I analyze this situation and generate my next tests?” Some people have told me this feels narrow-minded, that it is more important to train testers to create good tests and to get in touch with their inner creativity, than to cramp their style with a narrow vision of testing.
As I see it, this type of work doesn’t make you narrow-minded. It doesn’t stop you from using other techniques when you actually do testing at work. This is not your testing at work. It is your practice, to get good enough to be really good at work. Think of practicing baseball. When you are in batting practice, trying to improve your hitting, you don’t do it by playing catch (throwing and catching the ball), not even if it is a very challenging round of catch. That might be good practice, but it is not good batting practice.
The domain testing technique helps you select a few optimal test values from a much larger set of possibilities. That’s what it’s good for. We use it to pick the most useful specific values to test for a given variable. Here’s a heuristic: If you design a test that would probably yield the same result (pass/fail) now matter what value is in the variable, you are probably focused on testing a feature rather than a variable, and you are almost certainly not designing using domain testing.
Keeping in mind the distinction between competence and performance,
- Some students show performance problems (for example, they do the task poorly because they habitually follow instructions sloppily). For these students, the main feedback is about their performance problems.
- The students who show competence problems are generally having trouble with the idea of looking at the world through the lens of a single technique. I don’t have a formula for dealing with these students. It takes individualized questioning and example-creating, that doesn’t always work. Here are some of the types of questions:
- Does this test depend on the value of the variable? Does the specific value matter? If not, then why do we care which values of the variable we test with? Why do a domain analysis for this?
- Does this test mainly depend on the value of this variable or the value of some other variable?
- What parts of the program would care if this variable had this value instead of that value?
- What makes this specific value of the variable better for testing than the others?
From my perspective as the teacher, these are the hardest interactive grading discussions.
- The instructions are very detailed but they are a magnet for performance problems that dominate the discussions with the weaker student.
- The technique is not terribly hard, if you are willing to let yourself apply it in a straightforward way. The problem is that people are not used to explicitly using a cognitive lens, which is essentially what a test technique is.
Student feedback on this has been polite but mixed. Many students are enthusiastic about interactive grading and (say they) feel that they finally understood what I was talking about after the discussion that applied it to their assignment. Other students came away feeling that I had an agenda, or that I was inflexible.
Example 3: Research Essays
In my Software Metrics course, I require students to write two essays. In each essay, the student is required to select one (1) software metric and to review it. I give students an outline for the essay that has 28 sections and subsections, requiring them to analyze the validity and utility of the metric from several angles. They are to look in the research literature to find information for each section, and if they cannot find it, to report how they searched for that information (what search terms in which electronic databases) and summarize the results. Then they are to extrapolate from the other information they have learned to speculate what the right information probably is.
These are 4th year undergraduates or graduate students. A large percentage of these students lack basic library skills. They do not know how to do focused searches in electronic databases for scholarly information and they do not know how to assess its credibility or deal with conflicting results and conflicting conclusions. Many of them lack basic skills in citing references. Few are skilled at structuring a paper longer than 2 or 3 pages. I am describing good students at a well-respected American university that is plenty hard to get into. We have forced them to take compulsory courses in writing, but those courses only went so far and the students only paid so much attention. My understanding, having talked at length with faculty at other schools, is that this is typical of American computer science students.
My primary goal is to help students learn how to cut through the crap written about most metrics (wild claims pro and con, combined with an almost-shocking lack of basic information) so that they can do an analysis as needed on the job.
Metrics are important. They are necessary for management of projects and groups. Working with metrics will be demanded of most people who want to rise beyond junior-level manager or mid-level programmer and of plenty of people whose careers will dead-end below that level. But badly-used metrics can do more harm than good. Given that most (or all) of the software metrics are poorly researched, have serious problems of validity (or at least have little or no supporting evidence of validity), and have serious risk of causing side-effects (measurement dysfunction) to the organization that uses them, there is no simple answer to what basket of metrics should be used for a given context. On the other hand, we can look at metrics as imperfect tools. People can be pretty good at finding information if they understand what they are looking for and they understand the strengths and weaknesses of their tools. And they can be pretty good at limiting the risks of risky things. So rather than encouraging my students to adopt a simplistic, self-destructive (or worse, pseudo-moralistic) attitudeof rejection of metrics, I push them to learn their tools, their limits, their risks, and some ways to mitigate risk.
My secondary goal is to deal with the serious performance problems that these students have with writing essays.
I assign two essays so that they can do one, get detailed feedback via interactive grading, and then do another. I have done this in one (1) course.
Before the first essay was due, we had a special class with a reference librarian who gave a presentation on finding software-metrics research literature in the online databases of Florida Tech’s library and we had several class discussions on the essay requirements.
The results were statistically unimpressive: the average grade went from 74.0 to 74.4. Underneath the numbers, though, is the reality that I enforced a much higher standard on the second essay. Most students did better work on Essay 2, often substantially.
The process for interactive grading was a little different. I kept the papers for a week before starting interactive grading, so that I could check them for plagiarism. I use a variety of techniques for this (if you are curious, see the video course on plagiarism-detection at http://www.testingeducation.org/BBST/engethics/). I do not do interactive grading sessions with plagiarists. The meeting with them is a disciplinary meeting and the grade is zero.
Some students skirted the plagiarism line, some intentionally and others not. In the interactive grading session, I made a point of raising this issue, giving these students feedback on what I saw, how it could be interpreted and how/why to avoid it in the future.
For me, doing the plagiarism check first is a necessary prerequisite to grading an essay. That way, I have put the question behind me about whether this is actually the student’s work. From here, I can focus on what the student did well and how to improve it.
A plagiarism check is not content-focused. I don’t actually read the essay (or at least, I don’t note or evaluate its content, I ignore its structure, I don’t care about its style apart from looking for markers of copying, and I don’t pay attention to who wrote it). I just hunt for a specific class of possible problems. Thus, when I meet with the student for interactive grading, I am still reading the paper for the first time.
During the interactive grading session, I ask the student to tell me about the metric.
One of the requirements that I impose on the students (most don’t do it) is that they apply the metric to real code that they know, so that they can see how it works. As computer science students, they have code, so if they understand the metric, they can do this. I ask them what they did and what they found. In the rare case that the student has actually done this, I ask about whether they did any experimenting, changing the code a little to see its effect on the metric. With some students, this leads to a good discussion about investigating your tools. With the students who didn’t do it, I remind them that I will be unforgiving about this in Essay 2. (Astonishingly, most students still didn’t do this in Essay 2. This cost each of them a one-letter-grade (10-point) penalty.)
From there, I typically read the paper section by section, highlighting the section that I am reading so that the student can follow my progress by looking at the display. Within about 1/2 page of reading, I make comments (like, “this is really well-researched”) or ask questions (like, “this source must have been hard to find, what led you to it?”)
The students learned some library skills in the meeting with the librarian. The undergrads have also taken a 1-credit library skills course. But most of them have little experience. So at various points, it is clear that the student has not been able to find any (or much) relevant information. This is sometimes an opportunity for me to tell the student how I would search for this type of info, and them demonstrate that search. Sometimes it works, sometimes I find nothing useful either.
In many cases, the student finds only the cheerleading of a few people who created a metric or who enthuse about it in their consulting practices. In those reports, all is sunny and light. People might have some problems trying to use the metric, but overall (these reports say), someone who is skilled in its use can avoid those problems and rely on it. In the discussion, I ask skeptical questions. I demonstrate searches for more critical commentary on the metric. I point out that many of the claims by the cheerleaders lack data. They often present summaries of not-well-described experiments or case studies. They often present tables with numbers that came from not-exactly-clear-where. They often present reassuring experience reports. Experience reports (like the one you are reading right now) are useful. But they don’t have a lot of evidence-value. A well-written experience report should encourage you to try something yourself, giving you tips on how to do that, and encourage you to compare your experiences with the reporter’s. For experience reports to provide enough evidence of some claim to let you draw some conclusions about it, I suggest that you should require several reports that came from people not associated with each other and that made essentially the same claim, or had essentially the same thing/problem arise, or reached the same conclusion. I also suggest that you should look for counter-examples. During the meeting, I might make this same point and then hunt for more experience reports, probably in parallel with the student who is on their own computer while I run the search on mine. This type of attack on the data foundation of the metric is a bit familiar to these students because we use Bossavit’s book The Leprechauns of Software Engineering: How folklore turns into fact and what to do about it, as one of our texts.
In the essay, all students have performance problems (that is, all students have problems with the generic task of writing essays and the generic task of finding information) and so (in my extensive experience — 1 course), the discussion with all students switches back and forth between the content (the analysis of the metric and of the research data) and the generic parts of the assignment.
A Few More Thoughts
You can use interactive grading with anything that you can review. For example, Keith Gallagher uses interactive grading in his programming courses, reading the student’s code with them and asking questions about the architecture, style, syntax, and ability to actually provide the benefits the program is supposed to provide. His students have spoken enthusiastically about this to me.
Dr. Gallagher ends his sessions a little differently than I do. Rather than telling students what their grade is, he asks them what they think their grade should be. In the discussion that follows, he requires the student to view the work from his perspective, justifying their evaluation in terms of his grading structure for the work. It takes some skill to pull this off, but done well, it can give a student who is disappointed with their grade even more insight into what needs improvement.
Done with a little less skill, interactive grading can easily become an interaction that is uncomfortable or unpleasant for the student. It can feel to a student who did poorly as if the instructor is bullying them. It can be an interaction in which the instructor does all the talking. If you want to achieve your objectives, you have to intentionally manage the tone of the meeting in a way that serves your objectives.
Overall, I’m pleased with my decision to introduce interactive grading to my classes. As far as I can tell, interactive grading takes about the same amount of time as more traditional grading approaches. There are several benefits to students. Those with writing or language problems have the opportunity to demonstrate more skill or knowledge than their written work might otherwise suggest. They get highly personalized, interactive coaching that seems to help them submit better work on future assignments. Most students like interactive grading and consider it a worthwhile use of their time. Finally, I think it is important to have students feel they are getting a good value for their tuition dollar. This level of constructive personal attention contributes to that feeling.
This post is partially based on work supported by NSF research grant CCLI-0717613 ―Adaptation & Implementation of an Activity-Based Online or Hybrid Course in Software Testing. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.