Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What We (Didn't) Learn: The Misguided Role of Final Exams

"Yeah, um, I have never seen this before."

The following phrase is an all-too-common response by students taking final exams at both the secondary and post-secondary level. We've all, at some point in our lives, taken an exam in which we come across material we just haven't seen. Maybe it was because we were out that particular lesson. Maybe it was because we wrote down an equation incorrectly. Maybe it was because we wrote down something else while the teacher or professor was going over something we should have been writing. Maybe it was because we actually listened but just didn't think this idea or concept was important enough to make note of. Whatever may be the case, the truth is that on practically every final exam there will be some kind of question that we just haven't seen before and that we will inevitably get incorrect.

Which begs the question: Is it fair that we as teachers are assessing students on something they will get wrong no matter how we taught the material? If students get a question like this wrong are they to blame or are we to blame for asking them in the first place? How can we as teachers assess our students both on what they know as well as what they believe to be important? How do we create one uniform exam that address a classroom of twenty students who may have twenty different single questions or ideas they did not learn? And how to we use this exam to better our teaching?

Final exams are currently designed to benefit those who can successfully play the school game. Finals are all-encompassing, meaning they include material from the entire course or semester. Students who typically do well on final exams aren't necessarily the best or brightest. Instead, they are the ones who have figured out how to play the game. They are able to take a large body of information and shove it into short-term memory just long enough to regurgitate it in time for the final exam. They then are able to successfully lose the majority of the information as soon as the exam ends. It is a skill that is not taught in school and therefore a reflection of the home environment. When is the last time you learned how to "cram" in school? Teachers don't teach how to do this and therefore the students who are successful are the ones who have independently learned this skill on their own.

Not to brag, but I was an amazing "crammer" back in the day. I was one of those weird students who liked the challenge of finals. I would go over my entire notebook three or more times over the course of a few days quizzing myself on the information I had meticulously taken in class. I collected all my tests and quizzes from the class and put them in one neat, ready-to-access pile. I didn't go the group study thing. In fact, I despised it. Why should I waste my time with other people when I can learn the material better on my own? Besides, my success rate spoke for itself. I played the game and played it well. In nearly every college class, my final grade was always higher than my mark before final exams meaning the final exam had helped me increase my grade. As soon as my final was done, the information began to gradually vanish, lost for all eternity in that void where information goes if you are unable to successfully transfer it to long-term memory.

Where and when did I learn this skill? I honestly don't know. I had final exams in high school and studied for them. I had notebooks, but I don't think I was as organized in high school as I was in college. My parents never quizzed me. I never made flash cards. There were no learning-friendly websites where I could create my own quiz. In fact, I remember using my desktop computer to types notes, but nothing else. I never used a highlighter or underlined key words or phrases. It was simply that I had the ability to re-read material a handful of times before it was committed to short-term memory. Again, this was done in the solace of my own room, without a parent or sibling to assist me. Again, I didn't join friends for any study sessions at the library or someone's house. I crammed, brain dumped, and then left the final, getting ready to take to take the next one. Simple as that.

Despite all this, I too, encountered questions that I had never seen before. This idea stuck with me as I began my teaching career. I needed to give midterms and finals to see how my students were doing, but more specifically, to see how I was doing as a teacher. I couldn't figure out why my middle-school students were not good test takers. They had all the information and many of the questions I pulled directly from their notes. I did my best to make sure there were no "gotcha" questions. I gave open-ended short answers and essay questions in hopes that they would have a wide range of topics to choose from and could play to their strengths. Despite all this my first set of exams went extremely poorly. I couldn't figure out why my students didn't do well. When I asked how many of them studied, three hands went up. Seventeen hands stayed at their sides. The answer became obvious.

As tempted as I was to lecture my students about the need to study, I had an epiphany and realized that when push came to shove, these students would not study. They were not like me. They had never learned how to "cram" as I had. Study skills was not a skill our school taught. The majority of my students that first year had more important things to do at home rather than study. Who was I to criticize a middle-school child for taking care of his siblings as opposed to studying for his social studies exam? I couldn't do it and it would have been wrong if I had. What I had to do was find a way to have my students showcase their learning in a way that they could show what they learned while not worrying about having to "cram" for a final exam. How could I create a final that showcased what my students learned without having to study for it?

Flash forward four years. I'm currently in the process of giving my high school students a final exam. The exam is tomorrow and I haven't written a single thing. And yet, the exam is already done. How did I pull off this black magic? Simple. I have my own students write their exams. Let's consider that idea again: have students write their own final exam. You want students to take ownership of their learning? Let them decide the material on the exam. Let them show you what they have learned and what they found important. None of these "gotcha" questions. None of these "I've never seen this before in my life" terms or ideas. One exam, created by the class with specific guidelines and expectations. Students can show what they have learned and do not have to "cram" at home only to ultimately lose the information as soon as the exam ends.

In having student-created finals, I've found that students actually enjoy the process. Some of them are amazed that they can write "easy" questions on the final exam. However, "easy" means students having a clear understanding of a term or concept, which is ultimately a way of showcasing knowledge. If the correct answer is the only noun in the list and the other three choices are silly adjectives, then I have taught my students the difference between Spanish adjectives and nouns and how to tell the two apart. If they choose similar Spanish vocabulary words to English ones, then they have learned that the two languages often share similar roots and because of that will mean similar things. If they are creating a section on negation and underline the verb as a "hint" then students know that to negate a sentence in Spanish requires you to put the word "no" before the verb. All these things that students include are ways in which they can showcase their learning and how I as a teacher can assess my instruction.

The last benefit of student-centered finals is that students begin to understand how to prioritize a body of knowledge. They write their own notes and examples on the final. I've had students in the past copy and paste pages of notes. When it came time for that section, students had no idea what to do. We saw that it would have been better if we had put those notes into our own words and condensed the information. Essentially, what students are learning is how to take a large body of material and condense it into key points and ideas in creating the final. It is a skill that they will need later on in college when they have to take more traditional final exams. However, if they begin this skill in high school then they will be much more prepared by the time college exams roll around. They will have had experience taking a semester's worth of material and shrinking it down to a way that was manageable and that made sense to them.

A much better option than expecting our students to "cram", don't you think?