Discussion Thread

Engineering Exam Styles

  • 1.  Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 10-27-2021 09:49 AM
    As I am sure, all of us have seen our fair share of civil engineering exams. You know, the do-or-die type, the 2-questions-midterm worth 20% of your final grade type.

    Most often we weren't allowed to bring anything with us besides a pencil, calculator...
    Sometimes, if the professor was generous, we were allowed to bring anything we wanted besides a phone or laptop. Other times, a single sheet of handwritten notes.
    With no clear standard and every professor's testing style differentiating, this got me thinking:

    What types of tests prepare better engineers?
    Isn't it discouraging for students to strive for a 55 on a test and be happy with that?

    What testing methods best help the students retain the information?
    What testing methods best help the professor gauge if we understand the material?

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    Daniel Bressler EIT, A.M.ASCE
    Structural Engineer
    Brooklyn NY
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  • 2.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 10-31-2021 01:29 PM

    I'm happy to contribute about this! So thank you! 

    Since I'm on my way nearly graduating, I have a subject that helps students review all critical mathematics, fundamentals, and principles of computing any civil engineering math subjects. And I love how my professor guiding us right now, he make us prepared a flashcards for every formula we needed for every subject course. And advice not just to memorized the formula but understand each element, and how it can be process by solving different difficult problems at a time. While in board exam it was advice to aim to make it as in a perfect score and not the average passing score so that you will be sure pass if you make that high score.

    And in "What testing methods best help the professor gauge if we understand the material?" For me as a student, I think right after you study it, you will refresh ones minds by solving easy to difficult problems. Then create our own journal of how do we understand this kind of formula in a informative and readable way (and I prefer it written than digitalized). I know what I said is given, I hope someone share theirs too. 



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    Llala Chrishaye Ocampo S.M.ASCE
    Student
    City of General Trias Cavite
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  • 3.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 11-01-2021 09:51 AM
    In my university, there is this learning system called Project based learning. Basically, at the beginning of the course the professor explains to the students what the project brief is and what are the requirements till the end of the course. The classes are mixed with civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering students and they need to form a group together to start working on the project.

    In my opinion, this is one of the best ways to allow engineering students to learn and be tested, since we have the freedom to search whatever is required such as designing reinforced concrete or steel and to use designing software like AutoCAD. It also teaches and prepares students about the importance of communication and project management techniques used in real life.

    By the end of the project, 3 professors from civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering departments sit with the students and interview them by asking different types of questions to test their knowledge and understand of the project.

    I always preferred this type of testing or learning more than any other course and I always ended up learning more during such projects than a single course focusing on one thing.

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    Avo Solakian S.M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer Assistant
    Kuwait
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  • 4.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 11-02-2021 08:42 PM
    This topic has always been interesting to me. I've been through about 8 years of college working through multiple different exam structures. I found that college, and the previous academic phases (middle school, high school, etc.) should be looked at as more of a 'tool' than a 'product'. The phrase "give someone a fish, feed them for a day; teach them to fish feed them forever" resonates well with this point. School shows us 'how' to learn, not what to learn. It is not until the upper level degrees (Masters, Doctorates, PhDs, etc) that I feel your question has an answer. After college, I am using the resources that are available to find answers instead of "knowing it off the top of my head" as many people expect college graduates to. I attribute my ability to understand a question and how to approach finding the answer directly to the scholastic experience; not knowing the answer, isn't a setback of life, it's an aspect of it. Exposure to multiple testing strategies is a key component to preparing for what comes after academics. Maybe your question doesn't have an answer. You are spot on with your assessment that, with so many different styles of exams and expectations of a passing grade, how can we best tell if a student understands the material? Maybe that's the point!

    Great question-Good thoughts!

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    Cody Boomer EIT, A.M.ASCE
    Project Manager
    Charlotte NC
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  • 5.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 11-04-2021 09:44 AM
    Great topic, Daniel!

    I think that university engineering tests should reflect, to the extent possible, the way that engineers work in the field. It is more important to know how to follow the design procedures than to know off the top of your head what the value of *insert constant* is. At the same time, sometimes professors do students a disservice with completely open book and note exams because they don't feel like they need to prepare. Knowing how to be prepared is a life skill and a career skill.
    If tomorrow I was handed a professorship I think I would use the "one page of notes" plus any necessary code books method. That gives students enough space to write themselves a brief guide for the procedures and any needed constants without enough room to have a bunch of fully worked problems to just mimic with no real understanding of the procedures.

    I also firmly believe it should be possible for a student that prepares properly and understood the homework or projects to get a perfect score on the exam. Exams shouldn't be too long to realistically finish or at a much greater difficulty than what was covered in class. My reinforced concrete professor liked to give really unconventional shapes for one of the problems on the exam. In order to solve it you really had to understand where the geometrically based numbers were coming from in the theory, but it was not at a higher difficulty level. I thought that was a great way to fairly test if the material was really mastered or if students had just learned to regurgitate the typical problems.

    In a couple of my general engineering courses (Fluids and Thermodynamics) I had two professors that team taught. One started the semester and one ended it. With one professor I could do test problems based on the in class examples, but I did not really understand the theory of what was going on. On his tests I could easily get an A by just doing what I'd done on the homework. With the other professor I had a pretty good grasp on the concepts, but his test problems were incredibly difficult compared to the in class problems and homework. I passed his exams, but barely. I was glad they team taught because my average grade at the end of the semester was an accurate reflection of my understanding, but I would guess they had similar styles in the classes they taught alone.

    One last thought: I liked when professors gave us one or two tests from previous years to use as practice tests. For one, some students will likely already have access to them through friends or fraternity course files (that's another topic haha), so it makes it more fair for everyone to start with the same resources. I also think because there is such a variety in testing methods it helps students make their study sessions more effective. When students know where to focus, they're more likely to form a deep understanding of the concepts the professor deems the most important.

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    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK
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  • 6.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 11-22-2021 10:07 AM
    @Heidi Wallace you make several really good points.

    I guess it really boils down to the professor's teaching style as well. One of my professors allowed open everything and similar to your situation, he asked somewhat non-typical exam questions to see if you understood the fundamentals of the class.

    I agree with what you said regarding professors giving out previous exams. For all the classes that the professors gave out the previous year exams (oftentimes with solutions) I was able to understand their testing style and take a "practice exam". Oftentimes these professors were more hands-on with teaching the class and it was shown through their effort of producing new exam questions for every year.

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    Daniel Bressler EIT, A.M.ASCE
    Structural Engineer
    Brooklyn NY
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  • 7.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 01-08-2022 11:08 AM
    How many students do I know who knew the materials better than they showed on their exams? Not many, actually I don't know any. I'm sure there were some, but I didn't know them. I think learning styles are overhyped. It's important to realize that any test doesn't test for anything other than what it tests for, and I hope we never get standardized exams in higher education, but at the end of the day, they're just one way to rank students and it's best that students learn to learn, however they decide to do so. Irregular reinforcement is probably the best way to do that, on average.

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    Tsee Lee, A.M.ASCE
    City of New York
    Long Island City, NY
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  • 8.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 01-10-2022 12:07 PM
    I think all courses should focus more on practicality and real-world problems.  The theory is fine, but the theory alone is not what creates the best engineer, in my opinion.  I feel that I learned more when the professor was able to explain how the theory (or formula) translates to the real world.  For example, my professor for my "Mechanics and Materials" class actually broke a white board eraser trying to explain the tension and compression fibers.  It was really helpful to have the visual, as funny as it was.  This classroom was the only one with "bendy" erasers.

    What types of tests prepare better engineers?
    This is kind of a loaded question.  In general, I don't think tests better prepare an engineer.  It's the coursework, lessons, and homework.  It also depends on the industry and what your definition is for a "better engineer."  Generally speaking, more practical and real-world coursework will better prepare an engineer.  Reality is that we have notes; we have Google; we have resources at our fingertips to answer questions.

    Isn't it discouraging for students to strive for a 55 on a test and be happy with that?
    I think this question can be interpreted in a couple of ways.  Is 55% the passing grade on that particular test or is 55% all that you need to pass the class because you already have a high grade?  I don't know if it is discouraging, but I would say that this is more of character-building.  Even if you only need 55% to either pass the test or the class, you should shoot for excellence.  That is a characteristic that is hard to "train" or "build" in a person if they don't already have it.

    What testing methods best help the students retain the information?
    I think don't the test is designed to help students retain the information.  I think it is designed to rank students, or show some proof that they have an acceptable amount of retainage.  To help students retain the information -- I think that it's all in the lesson plans, coursework, homework, and projects.

    What testing methods best help the professor gauge if we understand the material?
    If I was a professor, it would be from the tests, projects, and presentations.

    I would say that, in general, a test is exactly what it is.  It tests to see if a student has an acceptable amount of mastery or learned knowledge of the subject.  Tests allow the professor to grade students and churn out acceptable graduates for the real world.  However, the coursework is what trains our minds to become engineers, problem solvers, or future professors.  I have yet to meet an engineer who was so well-rounded that he/she can provide solutions to every problem.  Reality is that we all depend on other engineers to find solutions in their field of expertise.  A solution that is more practical is going to be more efficient and (most of the time) will cost less.

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    Jefferson Thao P.E., M.ASCE
    Engineering Manager
    McClone Construction Company
    Thornton CO
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  • 9.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 01-10-2022 09:26 PM
    Hi Jefferson,

    I think you're correct to say that school cannot teach all that is to know in the real world. I'd argue that this means school should not try to replicate business. The English class is not intended to teach writing business letters or the engineering class to replicate a construction project. Rather, it should provide the foundation for such endeavors.

    One might argue that higher education has been too liberal and not practical enough, and that may be true in some cases, with more vocational pathways needed in this country. and engineering programs should continue to look for ways to better prepare their students for non-academic jobs, but if the student really has learned what their professors teach, I think they can pick up what they need to as they do their job.

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    Tsee Lee, A.M.ASCE
    City of New York
    Long Island City, NY
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  • 10.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 01-11-2022 11:35 AM
    Hi Daniel,

    Those are great questions. Allow me to present some possible answers.

    What types of tests prepare better engineers?

    This question is hard to answer because it depends on what defines a "better engineer." Do we prefer a savant-type engineer, as frequently shown in TV shows and movies (the Vulcan kind), or a problem-solver that is aware of their limitations and knows that it is better to constantly review notes, books, and codes in each project to avoid the dangers of personal bias from previous experiences?

    I prefer the second type of Engineer, particularly in geotechnics, where I put considerable effort to teach that one must respect the terrain, not in a metaphysical way but in a practical way considering the uncertainty and resource limitations of this branch of civil engineering.

    Isn't it discouraging for students to strive for a 55 on a test and be happy with that?
    Assuming that the grading scale goes from 0 to 100, this is discouraging but frequent, particularly in the early stages of the undergraduate program near the final examinations. However, proper guiding can improve the students' aspirations when they are informed about the advantages of an excellent academic record for graduate scholarships or employment opportunities. One must be careful and avoid the "rat-race environment" that poisons the relationships between students when the academic average becomes an ill-measure of the students' worth. Been there, suffered that.

    What testing methods best help the students retain the information?
    In my tests, I include a basic-concepts examination (15 to 20 minutes) to assess the level of understanding of the basic principles. For example, explaining the types of road pavements or the predominant form of damage in a particular pavement type. Complementary, I propose numerical exercises with all available resources (except communication devices) for the following 90 minutes. The numerical exercises are more popular among the students, perhaps because they get a feel of designing or creating something new. Still, the teacher must check the basic concepts periodically to avoid automatization.

    What testing methods best help the professor gauge if we understand the material?
    As I previously said, I think that short periodical examinations about basic and specific concepts yield a good portrait of the understanding per individual and for the whole group (necessary to improve the teaching).

    Best regards,








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    Luis Vasquez-Varela Aff.M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer
    Manizales
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  • 11.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 01-23-2022 10:25 AM
    Being able to adapt to the problem presented is part of being an engineer. It is what you will have to do on the job. Projects are never cookie cutter. In my opinion, the best test method is the one that allows for full comprehension. I would rather have a student know 100% of 70% of the class material than 70% of 100% of the class material.

    Though it is easier said than done, we may need to change our perspective from the idea of "passing" to "self discovery".

    It was not until grad school that I changed my perspective on test taking. My earlier approach was similar to that of the eye test, I remembered the answers to that small bottom line on the eye chart from the right eye just seconds ago. I would use that knowledge for the left eye completely forgetting that the whole purpose was for better vision. In school, I would stay up all hours of the night and morning cramming on a few occasions. In grad school it dawned on me that I needed to have an understanding of what I knew as well as what I had not fully comprehended, so I stopped that the cramming. This view may be impractical especially if and when the emphasis is on "passing" and grades; and as it relates to the financial aspects of re-taking a class (A semester hour was so much cheaper back in my day).

    My words to my daughter from elementary school to now, her sophomore year in college are "There is nothing wrong in discovering that you do not know something!" The point of testing is to help you see. Do not look to pass, look to comprehend. My advice is to get your rest.

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    James Williams P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal/Owner
    POA&M Structural Engineering, PLC
    Yorktown, VA
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  • 12.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 01-24-2022 07:43 PM
    Great advice! I was given similar advice by my mom when I was younger and it served it well

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    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK
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  • 13.  RE: Engineering Exam Styles

    Posted 20 days ago
    Hello Daniel,

    Looking back on my years spent getting a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering, I think the act of preparing for and striving after tests is quite complicated.

    I remember that for the classes I got the worst grades for overall, there were final exams worth a huge portion of the final grade. Because of that, when I got grades on those final exams that were lower than the grades I got for homework assignments, it would drag my grade down, but I would be content that I passed the class, along with other classes where I got A's and B's.

    On the other hand, the first time I got class grades lower than B's was during the first time I had a full-time college semester. I started taking college classes early, because I had finished up my high school classes early at a STEM school nearby. I didn't live on campus at the time, so I didn't even make the transition from high school life  to college life at the time. I retook two of those classes and did much better when my freshmen year started.

    In conclusion, getting either discouragement or complacency from exam grades like that should be part of the life experience for transitioning to the real world. In my high school, I could be fully dedicated to my school life and repeatedly getting good grades; afterward, learning I couldn't make do the same in Civil Engineering despite all my continuing commitment helped me realize which aspects of the profession to focus on, and prepare myself better for getting another degree.

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    Alexander Granato A.M.ASCE
    Student
    Bexley OH
    granato.3@...
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