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For students and teachers alike exams can be a dreadful experience with both parties left questioning the value of the exercise. Large-lecture courses tend to employ an exam culture that is more focused on expedience than efficacy as the promise of efficient grading often triumphs over the desire to create meaningful learning experiences. Within the Architectural Technology Fundamentals courses at Cal Poly we have found that machine-readable tests, which use multiple-choice and true-false questions, tend to assess students’ understanding of course topics at only the most basic level and are misaligned with our aspiration to fostering students who can integrate and apply their knowledge of course topics to their own design work.

In response, we have transitioned away from a mode of summative assessment and toward exams that we consider to be formative teaching tools in themselves. These include vignette-based exams that ask students to apply course topics to architectural scenarios. This paper discusses our use of vignette exams in large-lecture format architectural technology courses and reflects on the advantages and challenges. These insights come from three forms of assessment. First, grading the exams allows for an analysis of student performance. Second, dialogue with students through direct conversation provides input into their personal experiences with the exams. Finally, anonymous surveys assess the effectiveness of exams in supporting student learning.

Our findings indicate that the vignette exams allow for a more revealing assessment of students’ understanding of course topics. With machine-readable tests we could see when a student performed poorly in a topic area, however, the nature of their misunderstanding was not always apparent. In contrast, vignette exams reveal specifically where within each problem a student makes a mistake and therefore which aspect of the topic was misunderstood. Further, students report that they experience a holistic and integrated way of thinking through the vignette exams and that they “feel like architects” having completed the test. This sense of working on something meaningful positively impacts students’ perception of the relevance of course material to their education and their future lives as professionals.