This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like

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I used to give traditional final exams, even in my First-Year Composition course. Every semester during finals week, my FYC students would sit in the classroom for two hours writing an essay. Supposedly, this was an exercise in assessment: by composing a full-length essay in class, students were demonstrating what they had learned about writing that term. But I began, a few years ago, to question just what this exercise proved–how much did writing an in-class essay show about student learning?

First of all, it seemed to be a contradictory assignment. I had spent an entire semester trying to convince students to spend time developing their essays–to let their drafts rest for a while before revising them; to proofread carefully, looking for one type of error at a time; to let others read their writing and provide feedback on it to help them see it through their readers’ eyes. And then, for their final, heavily-weighted piece of writing, I asked them to throw all of that advice out of the window and write an essay, from start to finish, in two hours, with no peer review and little time to revise or proofread. Did I have a legitimate pedagogical reason for doing this? To be honest, the answer is No. I did it because it was what everyone else was doing and it was what I was told I should do, as well. As recently pointed out by David Jaffe in “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” traditional final exams are grounded more in tradition than they are in good pedagogy or the realities of how we want students to learn and what we claim we want students to take away from our classes (and college).

So, I began to re-think how best to use the two hour final exam meeting and to try out different ways of capping off the term with a demonstration of student learning. One thing that always bugged me about classes that required a research project (which, as an English student, was all of them) was the fact that no one, other than the professor, ever got to see the results of all my efforts. And I was always curious about what my classmates were researching and what the results were. Sometimes we’d talk about our projects in process, but the paper itself was usually due on the day of the final, so there was never any kind of whole-class plenary discussion of the topics and issues we had all been immersed in all term. What happened in our research papers stayed in our research papers. Using this experience as an example of how not to make the research project relevant to the course and to the students, I’ve experimented over the years with various ways for students to use the final exam meeting to share their research projects and what they have learned over the course of the semester with the class.

One semester, we had our own mini-symposium (mimicking our university’s annual student research symposium, which I had asked my students to attend that term), with students simply reading their research essays out loud at the podium. And as I’ve discussed in another post, I recently asked my first hybrid FYC class to turn their research projects into multi-media presentations, requiring them to articulate their written ideas in multi-modal rhetorical mediums. I think that both of these were fairly successful methods of asking students to demonstrate their learning while making that learning relevant to the course as a whole and encouraging students to take pride in the work they had done. But I wasn’t completely happy with either, as they both encouraged a kind of passivity on the part of the student’s audience, including myself.

Then, the other day this video popped up in my Twitter stream and, for me, it was an epiphanic moment:

I couldn’t help but think about what classrooms look and sound like during a traditional final exam. And even what my own final exams look and sound like, i.e., a sage on a stage (even though I’ve shifted the locus of power slightly by placing the students on the stage) with a glassy-eyed audience who typically respond with silence when asked if they have any questions. And I couldn’t help but to compare those classrooms to the one in the video (you can read more about the research slam at “The Unconference Strikes Back”).

What if final exams looked more like this? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? And what if I could join those moving from group to group, listening to (and perhaps even videoing) them engage in conversations about their learning? What if I asked them to post those videos on their blogs so that anyone could see them sharing and answering questions about their learning?

How powerful would that be?

Pretty powerful, I think. I’ll let you know how it turns out.