News from the Exams Institute, Fall 2013

It’s easy for me to enumerate a bunch of reasons why people use ACS Exams in their teaching, because over the past dozen years I’ve heard a number of them. Unfortunately, one thing we aren’t really able to do at The Institute is be everything for everybody. Many of the interesting ideas I have heard over time that might seem to be great directions for exam development have barriers that prevent us from doing them. The secure exam requirements we have are one thing – and that aspect of ACS Exams has occupied this space unfortunately often. There are, however, fundamental measurement challenges that are important to acknowledge as well.

One major issue that often prevents us from developing exams in courses that don’t already have one is the nature of content coverage. If a course doesn’t “look the same” to some degree in terms of the content people cover in the course nationwide, it’s really not possible to devise a good, norm-referenced exam for that course. This comes to mind right now because we have a new exam development committee starting for the Inorganic Chemistry exam, under the leadership of Barbara Reisner of James Madison University. Even though I mentioned this briefly in the last newsletter, I think it’s important to note that in addition to starting the development of the traditional exam for the senior level inorganic course this committee is undertaking a study about sophomore-level inorganic chemistry as well. There’s an impression that more schools are teaching this course, particularly as they adapt to the new guidelines for ACS Program Approval from the Committee on Professional Training (click here for their web site). Still, with the possible diversity of content topics that could be in such a course, it’s not clear what an ACS Exam for sophomore-level inorganic chemistry would cover. The exam development committee is preparing a content survey to determine what gets taught in this course and to see if an ACS Exam would make sense. They are working in conjunction with the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry. If you get a request from them to participate in this survey, we hope you’ll take a few minutes and let them know whether or not you have this course, and what the content is that you teach if you do.

In terms of the research we conduct more regularly here at The Institute, we have been making progress on a number of topics lately, and in several cases papers in the Journal of Chemical Education are on the way or under review. One of the more expansive projects is the continued development of the Anchoring Concepts Content Map (ACCM) that we have been working on for 5 years now. At this point, in addition to the General Chemistry version that was published last summer, the Organic Chemistry version is going through final revision touches for it’s ultimate publication in The Journal. It should be out fairly soon, and we’ll be sure to opt-in to the “Authors Choice” option so anybody who wishes to see this paper can do so regardless of subscription status. A couple of related papers, one taking a historical look at the content coverage of organic exams for the past 60 years and another looking at the cognitive complexity of organic test items are also in the works. And, if you’re an organic chemist reading this paragraph, I will encourage you to consider participating in the trial testing of the new First-Term Organic Exam that we anticipate holding this fall semester. Trial testing plays an important role in assuring the quality of ACS Exams and we appreciate the participation from the Chem Ed community. Drop us an email at if you are interested in participating.

The final subject to touch on here is the continued development of our capacity to deliver exams electronically. We have been working with Dave Hart and his colleagues in the Center for Educational Software Development at UMass-Amherst for several years on this and the system they have built is working very well. One of the main things we’ve been able to start addressing is an interest in customizing exam needs while using ACS Exam items. This project is still fairly preliminary, but efforts thus far have been working very well, and we can imagine that this capability may be an attractive one to keep working on. To this end, The Institute is putting resources into getting as many exam items into the system as we can, and hopefully when the overall exam platform is ready as a product for users, the option for exam customization will be part of the equation.

In conclusion, I always like to hear from people with ideas about ways the Exams Institute can help them with their teaching and assessment needs. If you have ideas for new tests or products that you think we should be working on, drop me a note. My email is and I would love to hear from you. We aren’t always able to develop new assessment tools, but we can always look into the possibility.

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