Sunday, May 13, 2012

Final Exams Can Be Fun

Students will rise to our expectations; we all know this. I expect my students to be deep thinkers, insightful readers and writers. I expect them to predict, make connections, ask questions. I never thought of expecting them to write their own final exam, but that’s what we did last week.

My class, Reading for Pleasure, is a successful English elective at Norman North. For over five years, this is the only class I teach…five sections a day. Another colleague, Kathy Woods, teaches one section. So, in our school of about 2400, we offer 12 sections of R4P a year. Most of the classes are at or close to capacity. Currently mine are 28-31.

I love the freedom to create self-reflective assignments for students – reading memoirs, midterm self-assessments, Reading Logs. I love the fact I can’t give my students a multiple choice test with only one answer. 150 students, all reading different books, reading at wildly different reading levels (this semester 2nd grade level to post-high school), makes it impossible to test kids with the same narrow questions.

In the past I’ve written open-ended, self-reflective questions for my take-home final exam to encourage insights and self-knowledge. I’ve read their work all semester and know the level of thinking to expect of each student. I love reading students’ answers and I often glean hard and soft data about the value of my class from their answers.

Finals are coming and I looked at the different versions of my final. Honestly, I was bored with those questions and knew I needed new ones. I decided to let my students try their hands at writing. I told them by now they know what I value, how I ask questions…they should be able to compose great questions for their final.

I asked each student to write one question on his or her Log to bring to their small group…then with three or four more, they composed two group questions and wrote a rationale for each. With five sections, there were lots of duplicate questions, and many could be combined, making even richer questions. We ended up with 13 strong, interesting questions – interesting for them to answer and interesting for me to read.

The next day I gave students a handout with their 13 questions. We all agreed there were too many questions for students to answer fully, and we decided there would be five required questions, and five they would choose to make their exam ten essay questions long.

They voted on the questions they thought were the most fair, given our semester, and the ones they wanted to write about. They voted on the five they thought should be required for all students to answer. I did explain I would be slipping my favorite question into the mix…prerogative of the ‘oldest person in the room!’ It’s a wonderful question requiring students to read quotes about books and reading, and to connect one quote to a book they’ve read this semester.

More than a week before our finals my students and I already have ours written!  And it truly is ours. Students wrote the questions, collaborated on them, prioritized them. They've already begun thinking of how they'll answer the questions. I posted our final exam on our Moodle website so my early-birds can start working.

My friend, Lisa Hunt, talks often about authentic assessment, and we have hopes that Common Core will expect teachers to find multiple, authentic ways to assess student learning. I think a project like this shows clearly what students have learned, what they value, what they know I value.  The answers I’ll be reading soon won’t be canned answers, playing the ‘game’ of school, trying to figure out what the teacher wants to hear. The answers I’ll be reading will be rich, deep thinking. They’ll be individualized and meaningful. 

Students will tell me how our semester together has changed them as students and readers.
Asking students to write the exam questions already gave me a glimpse into what they’ve learned and what they value, even before they take the test.

I can’t wait to grade my finals!


  1. Way beyond the test and testing the collaboration process they went through is the type of real world work employers want their employees to be able to do effectively in groups. This process is similar to a project my husband described his company going through to create some projects not long ago.


  2. Claudia, you are right, and this is a great example of authentic assessment. It's also a CC thing, and it is my greatest hope that when we finally see CC in action and deal with CC assessment that it is similar to this in some way. Actually, I believe the true CC assessment should be more like National Board assessments. There was very little I could memorize for those assessments. I had to know "practice" and that means it's about how I learned my craft. That is what we want for our students. It is now WHAT you learn, but HOW you learned it. When you can answer that you have knowledge that will suit you no matter your endeavors.

  3. Thanks, friends. I was excited by the quality of their individual questions on their Logs, and even more so on the collaborative work. Then, their prioritizing the questions was interesting...they took the work seriously and I hear conversations about which ones they thought would be best. I'm really eager to see what comes of all this. All of us know if you trust your students. It IS about craft...and we can't forget students are crafting their futures in our classrooms.

  4. Great work! This is what assessment should be. You will really learn what your students have learned and how it relates to their lives as individuals. I am happy to read your blog.

  5. I've administered all the tests, and am now sifting through -- looks like I'll have great data -- both qualitative and quantitative. Kids seemed engaged and interested while answering their questions. The same kids who went through the motions all semester did the same. I'll be posting comments soon...I'm such a nerd -- LOVE reading what my students have to say!