Barry Panas, the John Oliver of AP Physics consultants, writes in with a question:
How long does it take you to reach your first full physics test in your "first" course of physics with any group of students? I'm specifically thinking of the course that introduces student to kinematics (etc.). How long do you spend in that very first unit to the point of a test?
Complex answer. Start with this year in AP Physics 1: I've been giving a 10 question multiple choice test once a week, then every third week I instead give a 40 minute free response test. So the very first test happened after three weeks. That was enough to get through graphical and algebraic kinematics, plus Newton's second law in one dimension.
Since I only have 40 minutes to test, I decided to go with two AP-style 7 point problems plus three "short answer" questions. All my tests this year will be in this format. My trimester exams -- one to be given in November, one in March -- will be 30 minutes for 17 multiple choice questions, followed by a full-on 90 minute, 5 question AP Physics 1 style free response exam (three 7-pointers, and two 12-pointers).
Historically in my upper-level intro classes: I've given tests every four weeks. These tests have been 80 minutes or so long, including free response, short answer, and multiple choice. In the regular-level sections, this has gotten me through virtually all of kinematics.
The advantage of shorter but more frequent tests is obvious -- they get more frequent feedback, and tests aren't as big a deal. However, the advantage of longer tests is that students usually do better the longer the test. More questions mean more likelihood to find something easy to knock out, leaving time to play with a tougher question.
Either way, I've always stuck to a few guiding principles:
All tests are of identical format. Just as students are taught not to read the directions on an SAT or AP test (if you don't know the directions ahead of time, you're sunk), they shouldn't be asked to read directions to any types of questions they haven't seen before. I publish the instruction sheet and the test structure before test day.
The time per problem is identical on all tests. In AP, I use the AP time ratio of about two minutes per point free response, and just about two minutes per multiple choice item. In lower level classes, I make sure to keep the same time-per-item-type ratio on all tests throughout the year.
All my tests are cumulative, meaning there's no need to schedule unit tests: wherever we are in the course, the test covers everything to that point. The test DATES are set from year's beginning.