Monday, May 29, 2017

A Final Exam?

One of the charged topics within my school and within broader education is the final exam. Its proponents usually make two main arguments as to why exams are a good thing. The first argument is that a final exam forces students to look back, relearn and consolidate knowledge from the course. The second, at least at the secondary level, is that it prepares kids for the exams they will have in college. If my department chair was writing this post, this is what he would say.

I'm not a fan of finals; but I'm not terribly opposed to them either within the current paradigm. I do think there are better summative assessments and I also believe a well-crafted final that emphasizes themes, ideas, and big-picture thinking isn't the worst thing in the world. Yet, I am giving a final project, not a final exam for my course.

My problem, as I said, really isn't with the exam. It is the paradigm it is embedded within. It is the teacher-centered, content coverage model that bothers me. Little agency lies with the student and ultimately very little of the knowledge the student is responsible for "sticks" anyway. It gets into short-term memory and is forgotten within weeks.

Good PBL assignments and assessments are "stickier" because they put the learner in control. The best "final" at my school is a project for the traditional and very demanding science course. But to my mind, the final is brilliant. It is a project, not an exam. Students are tasked with finding connections to themes discussed in this integrated science course in pieces of art and famous pictures. It challenges kids to go deeper and there is no silly "guess what's in my head" that too many teachers play with the final exam.

What should good finals look like? In my International Relations class, I gave students a choice of options- choice is always important- and while most students are going to do a more traditional, though tech-based assignment (they will use Adobe Spark Page to embed video, text and visuals) a couple of students are doing more open-ended projects. One student is reviving Amnesty International at my school and serving as the leader of the club as a final project. You know what? This student may not be forced to remember some of the concepts she learned this year, but she will be applying those concepts as she writes letters next year.

Finally, a plea: As you give your finals, please don't try to trick kids. Too many teachers think they are being clever when they try to fool their students. That's educational malpractice. Make it about thinking and not memorization, except when absolutely necessary. And yes, I do think there are some things that a student just has to memorize- such as irregular verbs in Spanish.

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