Examinations are perhaps the most traditional method for assessing student learning. In-class exams, take-home exams, oral exams...the aim of all these instruments is to gauge knowledge and skills as objectively as possible. A test can only test what it asks about; the thoughtful design of an exam as a whole and of individual questions is, therefore, of paramount importance. Particular attention needs to be paid to the types of knowledge and skills called for. Some questions test merely rote memory; others test higher-order critical thinking skills.
The value of an examination is that it can yield direct evidence of a student's learning. That being said, there are important questions to contemplate when designing tests: (1) What am I measuring? (2) Should the exam be given in class? Take home? Open book? Closed book?
For every exam, the instructor needs to have a clear idea of what type(s) of learning are being measured, and then design accordingly. Critical thinking is a hierarchy in which memorization and the regurgitation of "right answers" constitutes the lowest rung of the ladder. On a higher rung students must think their way through problems or cases, applying what they have learned, recognizing assumptions, moving from concrete to abstract (and/or vice versa) comparing and contrasting, weighing alternatives, varying perspectives. A still higher rung on the ladder is making informed judgements that draw on evidence from experience, experimentation, and/or readings.
Essay exams are good for measuring many forms of higher-level thinking, but in a large sections this is not a viable option. In these cases, multiple choice or other "objective" exams can be tailored to include a certain number of questions that go beyond recognition and memory to require the application of concepts.
In-class, closed book: This "classical" form of examination has the advantage of showing what a student remembers. However, it may not be a relevant exercise in terms of many real world situations, where memorization is less important than knowing how to look up, apply, and/or synthesize information. Also, there is the problem of how long or how deeply information crammed for a test is retained. Less active engagement with the material—not only in classes but also in exams—usually means shorter term, soon forgotten learning.
In-class, open book: This type of examination can measure learning in terms of how well and how efficiently students can look up and apply information in a limited time frame. If memory of terms or concepts is the knowledge being measured, open book exams are obviously less effective than closed book ones.
Take-home exams: This type of exam is perhaps closest to the "real world" in which problems must be contemplated, sources consulted, and responses framed over time. On the down side, a take-home exam can become an extra term paper and, as such, horrendously stressful.
Oral exams: This is covered in the "Interview" section of the toolbox.