Ahead of this week’s faculty workshop, Minimal Marking and Effective Grading (the last one in our series this semester), I would like to discuss a couple of options for how to design the final exam for your course. While the workshop will present various strategies for saving time on grading and giving feedback, I want to focus here on exam formats that are designed with these time-saving methods in mind. One will be a broader template that can be adapted to any discipline, and the other will be more geared towards the humanities and social sciences, where a longer essay answer is an appropriate format for testing the students’ knowledge and skill set. My goal is to present two options for the final exam that allow students to shine on the page according to the main tenet of WAC pedagogy; that writing to learn and learning to write are equally important tasks that should be supported with ample scaffolding.
So how do we balance these seemingly contradictory goals of providing ample scaffolding and feedback while sticking to “minimal marking” strategies? And how do we make sure that the work we are assigning to students is actually useful to them, even as we prepare them for standard department tests at the end of the semester that can seem to contradict the main message WAC promotes about writing i.e. that it should be a carefully thought-out process with preparation and planning?
- WRITE THE FINAL EXAM TOGETHER!
My students were always excited by this prospect when I introduced it to them in the second half of the semester. The thinking behind collectively writing the exam is to allow students to take ownership over course material and decide for themselves what was most impactful in terms of their development and learning.
Students prepare for this at home ahead of time by looking back over their notes from the semester, and then deciding what they would like to see appear on in the exam itself. When they come into class, you firstly split into groups to vote for people’s favorites, and then together you decide which questions should make up the final exam. This conversation is usually very lively and gets the students deeply engaged in the course material while they work to justify to each other what should and should not appear.
Once these decisions are made, the exam is written up and given to the students ahead of time, so they are able to work on prepared responses at home that hopefully mimic the redrafting process that is so crucial to WAC pedagogy. This method also allows them to become more comfortable in an exam setting once you take away the anxiety of the “unknown”.
Here is a suggested template for designing the exam, taken from a former ENGL 220 course:
SECTION ONE (30 Mins)
Definition and Example questions (in the exam you will choose 3/8)
You will be given 8 key words (literary terms, characters, themes or ideas; in STEM these can be formulas, symbols or methods that need explanations) and you must choose THREE to write about. You will define the term and then give me an example using one of the texts/theories we have studied this semester, stating its importance or relevance in the context of that work.
TOTAL POINTS: 15 (5 per question)
SECTION TWO (30 Mins)
Identification of a Passage (in the exam you will choose 1/5)
You will be presented with three excerpts taken from the poems/plays we have looked at this semester. It will be your job to pick ONE to write about. You will identify the author, and the poem/Hamlet, and then discuss its relevance in relation to one of the key themes/ writing features we have been discussing this semester.
TOTAL POINTS: 15
SECTION THREE (1 hour)
Essay Question (in the exam you will choose 1/8)
You will write an answer to ONE of the essay questions, using the whole hour (writing a mini plan is encouraged) to talk about at least TWO of the texts we have studied this semester. The questions will focus on issues we have discussed throughout the semester and will use familiar terminology e.g. epiphany / the sublime / sane vs. insane.
TOTAL POINTS: 30
YOUR TASK AT HOME THIS WEEKEND:
Come up with the following to present to the class during our next session:
5 possible key words/terms
2 examples of passages
3 possible essay questions
*(providing examples of whatever you are asking for is a good idea here – I usually go over the exam format in class time first before asking them to prepare it themselves at home).
2. PRE-PREPARED ESSAY STYLE RESPONSE!
The second exam model I propose is more suited to humanities and social sciences subjects in which the bulk of course material being assessed can be presented in an essay-style response. It involves putting together a selection of prompts that cover a variety of topics and then students choose one to answer in the exam in the form of a long, essay-style response. Similar to the strategy above, you could have students look over their notes at home first in order to come up with suggestions for what kinds of prompts could appear on the exam, then together as a class you decide on the selection that will be offered. You can set requirements for what their answers must include – for example at least two different authors / characters / themes / time periods etc. – but importantly it should be up to the students to come up with the wording for questions, which helps them to internalize the material being treated on the exam.
An important part of this model is insisting that student’s write out their practice answers ahead of time, so that their response becomes the product of drafting and redrafting that will happen naturally during their revision process and exam preparation. Allowing them to see the questions ahead of time and select which topic to write on encourages students to order their thoughts the way they would do in an assessed paper, with more thought being given to structure and natural flow of an argument than they perhaps have time to do in a more typical exam setting when they haven’t seen the question first. The action of “writing from memory” that this sort of exam preparation leads to, can greatly improve the confidence students have in their own ideas and work, and again lessens the anxiety that can be triggered by feeling caught out or tricked on an unseen exam.
In the end, however you decide to design the final exam for your course, making sure that the format supports the same kind of development you are hopefully nurturing in your students’ writing over the course of the semester is important. By design, if students are able to prepare their responses for the final exam ahead of time, it should mean that they turn in a better product, which ultimately supports their development as writers as well as allowing them to handle course material confidently in an exam setting.