Faculty-Led Research Looks to Narrow the Exam Gap

April 28, 2015

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Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the State Capitol is an opportunity to display the experiences of undergraduate students engaged in research for Texas legislators and the public. The 2015 theme, “Transforming Texas Through Undergraduate Research,” focused on how research done by undergraduate students can positively impact Texas and Texans. Under the direction of Associate Psychology Professor Tiffiny Sia, Texas Lutheran University students Hannah Liebman, Megan McBride and Rene Dominguez presented their research on the effect of optional essay questions in standardized examinations on the scores of minority students.

In addition to the event at the Capitol, their research, “Narrowing The Exam Gap: Impact of Optional Testing Essay Usage on Minority Performance,” was presented at the 2015 Southwestern Psychological Association conference. There, Sia led a teaching demo showing how the addition of an optional essay question on exams benefited English as a Second Language (ESL) and minority students.

“The optional essay was originally developed for use with foreign exchange students from Kosovo who had trouble understanding colloquialisms on multiple choice exams,” Sia said. “Now these were very good students. They were attentive, read all the chapters, and turned in their work. They did great until there was a test. And they weren’t just doing poorly. They were getting 14 out of a possible 100 points. I knew I had to make something available that students could use, if they wanted, to level the playing field.”

After listening to the Kosovo students express how they wished they could write down their notes from class to show they understood the course, Sia began exploring the implementation of an optional essay. This would allow them to write anything they know or learned from a class that’s not on a test and give students who underperform on standardized tests another way to show they retained course material.

The ongoing work of Sia and her students shows that when utilized by students, regardless of sex or race, the optional essay improves their exam scores by a letter grade. This, Sia said, is especially important for minorities and males who can pull their exam scores from a “D” to a “C” by writing the essay. She also emphasized the effects of test anxiety and the idea of underperforming as confirmation of negative racial stereotypes known as the stereotype threat.

“Disadvantaged students’ poor exam scores impact college graduation and future opportunities,” Sia said. “Standardized tests are usually created by white, educated test makers who unconsciously ask culturally sensitive questions. For example, if there’s a question with a picture of a house asking, ‘what doesn’t belong?’ and the picture shows a porch with various items like a flower pot and a couch, the test maker would probably say the couch doesn’t belong on the outside of the house. However, what if someone grew up poor without air conditioning? The couch on the porch makes sense to them.”

The optional essay has successfully been used in lower division and upper division psychology courses and the data supports it is especially useful in courses with comprehensive finals. Additionally, the optional essay can be used in any class to benefit disadvantaged students, including but not limited to minorities, first-generation, males, ESL, dyslexic, ADHA, and nontraditional students. Anecdotal interviews with students also found a reduction in test anxiety because they knew what they studied and learn would be on the test. And unlike curving an exam, Sia said, only students with additional information will benefit.

“Dr. Sia has spent years working above and beyond to give each and every student the chance to succeed in any way she can,” said psychology major Hannah Liebman. “I hope this data and research can be used to help improve student performance not just in the psychology department, but in other departments as well.”

As for outside interest, the team has received positive feedback from professors at other universities in fields including nursing, kinesiology and biology. Sia hopes to eventually pair with a professor outside of psychology to see what happens when the essay is implemented into other subjects.

“Working with Dr. Sia made me realize how much of an impact research can make,” said psychology and sociology double major Megan McBride. “She is a great mentor and taught me a lot about compiling data, analyzing it, and then presenting it in an effective way to potentially convince people to implement it into their own lives.”

Psychology major Rene Dominguez said collaborating on this type of faculty-led research project helped prepared him for graduate school.

“We got hands-on experience in creating our own studies and writing out proposals for research grants,” Dominguez said. “This involvement between students and our professor has also given us the chance to attend conferences and make connections with professors from potential graduate school programs. This experience was insightful and definitely one for the books.”

Pictured above: Senior Megan McBride standing next to the TLU poster presentation at Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 4, 2015.

Other TLU students attending were Hannah Liebman and Rene Dominguez. TLU was one of 34 Texas colleges and universities participating in the event, which is designed to showcase how undergraduate student research positively impacts Texas and its citizens.

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