Brown Bag to Brown Box: Modern World History Final Exam

I wanted to create a capstone experience for my Inquiry-Based/PBL section of Modern World History. I had great success with doing the mid year exam as an escape room type activity, but I wanted something that was more of a summation of the year for the final. I was also a little afraid of having the final be a lesser version of the mid term; I was not confident that I could top it with the same type of experience.

My first idea was to have the class create a time capsule – put their important learning in a box to be sealed and opened on the first day of classes by next year’s section. My working title was “Thinking Inside the Box.” I wanted this year’s class (the first Inquiry/PBL version of this required survey) to pass on a legacy to next year’s classes (there will be two sections next year). Still I felt like something was missing.

I did some exploring online and came across the idea of a a brown bag exam ( I liked the idea of having students think about the meaning of individual objects in the context of the course.

I ended up combining the two ideas. I created brown bags for each student to select randomly. Each one contained 3 images: one historical object, a historical person, and a map. There was also a random household item included. As a few people pointed out, they looked like the goody bags kids get at birthday parties. Each row in the chart below represents the contents of one bag.

Ming Banknote James Watt Ivory Trafficking spoon
Benin plaque John Locke Industrialization in Europe cotton ball
Miniature of Mughal Emperor Louis XVI Industrialization 1850 rubber band
Great Wave of Kanagawa Napoleon World in 1500 glasses
Mexico codex Vasco da Gama 1500-1800s light rail ticket
Jade Bi Toussaint L’Ouverture imperialism 1900 battery
Early Victorian Tea Set Galileo World Sugar Trade sillver earring
mechanical galleon George Washington WWI western front paintbursh
Refomation Centenary Broadsheet Karl Marx Africa – 1186 and 1914 pencil
Tughra of Suleiman Isaac Newton Columbian Exchange tea strainer
Durer’s Rhinoceros Hitler Rise & Fall Mughal Empire bouncy ball
Akan Drum Columbus WWI – military alliances post-it notes
Kakiemon Elephant Martin Luther Atlantic Revolutions/Possessions playing cards
Russian Revolution plate Gutenberg Ming Dynasty Trade routes elephant
Sudanese Slit Drum Copernicus Expansion Ottoman Empire ziploc bag
Pieces of Eight Machiavelli WWII – Axis & Allies gold earring

The task for students was to identify and describe each item and explain its significance to modern world history. They knew some directly from the course; others were things they had not encountered, although they were in good position to understand their significance. The two hour exam was structured as follows: 15 minutes for individual research and thinking; 15 minutes to collaborate and talk about their items in groups of three; 30 minutes to finish research and write note cards to accompany the images/items. This actually ended up taking a little over an hour – about 70 minutes with transitions. Then, students arranged the items and cards on desks and walked around to look at what everyone else had done. This took about 15 minutes, including the arrangement of the items. What I liked about this is that the students were talking about the significance of the different things as they were moving around, in fact getting a jump start on the conversation. After the gallery walk, we had a discussion of which items were important enough to include in the box for next year’s class. This was lively and thoughtful; my only regret was that I had to cut it short due to timing. I left about fifteen minutes at the end for students to finish or polish their note cards, since that is what they will be evaluated on individually.

If I do this again, I will take the advice of a colleague who observed it and have students do some of the prep work ahead of the exam so that we can allow for full discussion. She also suggested that students should not be allowed to advocate for their own items, as a twist. Both are great suggestions.

It’s possible that some students could feel like they might have learned more by having a traditional cram and dump exam, but I am betting that in the long run the experience of the research and discussion, requiring them to think back on what the course was really about, will last longer. I guess I’ll have to check with them next year.


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