Exam Week Reflections

A few years ago, I hated exams. Now I do not anymore. What happened?

I have moved toward giving exams that reflect the way I teach and mirror my expectations throughout the course, and I have been happier. There is value in having students think, reflect, synthesize and apply. While there are different ways to do this, having students sit and do it together in a room is really not so bad. Students do not like them, but that does not necessarily invalidate the exercise. And, as long as colleges operate this way, college prep schools would do students a disservice by not having exams at all.

The creation of an exam in a collaborative team requires a discussion about expectations. It is really important that we as teachers stop and think about what we are asking of our students, in terms of what is essential and what is reasonable. We have had many years to learn what we know about our subject and gain the insights we have. Students are early on in their journey.

An exam provides an opportunity for me to evaluate where students are in using their skills as historians. It can be a helpful reset for me as a teacher, to recalibrate where we need to go in the second part of the year or in what I may need to rethink for next year.

For my senior elective I gave the students what I would consider an exam (the essential questions I would hope they could answer) without warning. I wanted to see what they had really learned without studying. Then, I gave them the opportunity to finish the questions later. The unprepared answers are really about grading me and how well I constructed the class to accomplish my goals, and the prepared answers will be graded. After that activity, students moved into individual projects. For that class, that model worked.

Not every course needs to follow the same model. In some ways it feels easier in a climate of education reform to say that exams are outdated. At the risk of being labeled a dinosaur, I am not so sure. A well-crafted exam can be a good learning experience.