What is on Their Minds? A new kind of test

Just beginning to emerge from teachers of advanced classes is an interesting kind of exam. The premise is an unusual one.

It is not the answers to the teacher’s questions that matter most. These suggest the students study what one text focussed on or what was presented in lectures, perhaps by cramming in a study session just prior to the exam. Instead it is the student’s question — each student presenting an individual theme somehow connected with a starting point responsive to the course — introduce the question and write a detailed response Each “exam” of course would then be different and the teacher have to give up a preset list of expectations or reductions and consider the paper holistically. You read them and decide how good they are.

Veteran teachers have no problem with this idea. We all read material in our chosen field extensively and we might even collect those manuscripts we thought were really good for our bookshelves or now our document files. We’ve been doing it for years. We are curious, we are intrigued, we are bored — well you get the point.

It also becomes possible to propose a rewrite with more expansive discussion or pointed references, moving from a spontaneous essay to a more print ready submission. Furthermore, the media chosen is not necessarilly restricted to an essay.

Some examples:

For a class called Source Studies: What are the greek myths really about? A psych major or a psych literate student might want to address Freud’s use of them or Carl Jung’s. Or some might pursue Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and his definitions of heroism and how to spot a pattern in the heroes path? Or address how many writers offer their version of a famous myth to shadow their narratives. Or take off from that and discuss what it might mean to be a hero in modern context.

In Great Books of Western Lit, I began with third century BC Mesopotamia. I was asked to come up with a question that might apply to all classes of that title taught during that semester despite the differences in each Professor’s approach. One Prof focussed on the Bible; another on Shakespeare. The Norton Anthology had been the text in the course for many years but included no female authors. (I’m not making this up.) So what common question could I come up with? Ultimately I suggested: Given the Great Works studied in your class, discuss an aspect of them which influenced what we still have in some form in our society today.

The individualization possible with such a broad statement allows students to focus the question with an opening query or theme statement of his or her own.

Here one student could discuss what happened in Mesopotamia that was truly transitional, while another might focus on what came down to us from aspects of this work and how much is currently under review.

These are just some examples of what might emerge in a college level literature class, but the broader idea applies to many subject areas in social science, historical interpretations, art criticism or architectural movements. After speaking with many persons, I am struck by how often a particular assignment or activity engendered a lasting change in their favorite field of study.. It made such a difference in their lives that the opportunity to expound on it was greeted with gleeful enthusiasm. Often the first of these occurred in Elementary School. How wide-spread these early moments are isn’t yet known to me. Readers might see what they find in their own memory of such early empowerment.

Thus I am not sure if younger students wouldn’t prosper from some sort of similar practice, maybe with a little more direct suggestion at first to get students started. Maybe just ask what was your favorite activity in this course? And how come?

Occasionally colleges will allow a Professor’s question added to the evaluation. This one is a particularly good choice. Ultimately finding some way you can have your students tell you what they have taken from your course is fundamental to your next revision.

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