Tests vs. Fests: Students in “Learning Celebrations” Rather than Exams Scored Higher and Enjoyed Themselves, Baylor Sociologist Says

June 26, 2015

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WACO, Texas (June 26, 2015) — A Baylor sociologist who reshaped "test day" in his class — transforming it with balloons, streamers, treats and music — found that students in "learning celebrations" scored higher than students who took standard-style exams in previous semesters.
"Assessment is too important for students to dread," said Kevin Dougherty, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences, in the article "Reframing Test Day," published in Teaching/Learning Matters. "My goal is to create an ambience for assessment that enhances learning and joy."
Students are initially skeptical, he said, and "often slip into the familiar language of quizzes and tests." But "members of our teaching team, myself and two graduate teaching assistants gently remind them that no such activities occur in our course."
The celebrations are used in Dougherty's "Introduction to Sociology" class, which usually has more than 200 students.
With Learning Celebrations, Dougherty noted that the mean percentage on exams in three previous semesters, with standard tests, was 84.65; the mean percentage on three semesters of the celebrations was 86.48.
Students consistently did better on Learning Celebrations, with statistically significant differences, Dougherty said.
More than balloons and music, "the content of Learning Celebrations is amusing," he said.
Each celebration includes 30 to 40 multiple-choice questions, with classmates featured in many of the questions. For example, in a celebration dealing with "formal sanction" — such as a fine or expulsion officially imposed to discourage action — a student adopts a ferret and gets evicted from her campus residence hall.
Students seem to appreciate reading about each other in the celebrations, Dougherty said.
"I can't remember another time in my teaching when students were so enthusiastic about multiple-choice questions to assess their learning," he said.
Over three semesters, nine of 10 students agreed that "I enjoyed the Learning Celebrations in Sociology." Forty-one percent "strongly agreed."
"Learning Celebrations shift the emphasis of assessment from grading to learning," Dougherty said. "When students care about a subject and care about classmates, the potential for deep, lasting learning increases."
*Kevin Dougherty, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and active researcher. His research explores religious affiliation, religious participation, racial diversity in congregations, congregational growth and decline, and religion's impact on community involvement, politics and work. His published research appears in leading academic journals and has been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN, National Public Radio and USA TODAY.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.


The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.