A Different Kind of Final Exam: Celebrating Learning and Success

There are so many things that I love about teaching. One being that I have academic freedom to try different things. Today, I discuss my very successful experiment with Final Exams!! 

Some time ago I read “What kind of noise does your final exam make?” The basic idea being that the “Final Exam” need not be limited to traditional means of assessment. This has stayed with me for a while, especially because I always felt kind of sad and depressed when my students and I spent the very last day in silence – them quickly filling up a Bluebook (or two) and me thinking about the depressing nature of such an exercise – one that is antiquated in many ways but necessary in some ways, at times.

(This idea for a different kind of Final Exam also came directly and indirectly from one of my “academic crushes,” Dr. Michael Wesch.)

(Indeed, I am a big fan of some written in-class assignments/assessments as they require a different kind of learning and knowledge.)

I’ve been tempted to do some kind of experiment with the Final Exam in the past (especially with students who have a strong “A” going into the Final) but have hesitated. How will I know if they learned enough material since the midterm exam and if they have developed some kind of synthesis of the information? How can I do something that is fair for all students?

Prior to this semester, the closest I have come to a different kind of Final Exam is when I had a class of three and when I had a class of five — small classes are awesome. In both of these classes, we had a Final Exam celebration at the Cheesecake Factory – but didn’t really discuss the course content. For the Final, students wrote a take-home essay related to what they learned over the semester and what was most important and why.

This semester, my students in Introduction to Queer Studies launched the idea. I asked them what they would like to do for the Final Exam. They suggested a class-wide review/conversation. This was an exceptional group and I am always looking to try something different, so I said, “Sure. Let’s see what happens.”

I couldn’t be more pleased with the results, especially for the first time.

For this class, each student drew nine terms out of the bag: The bag had about 170 terms – concepts, people, places, extra important readings, etc – from day one to the last day. Students were asked to find some way to connect all of the terms they received and to present that to the class. Students could trade one term for another one if they wanted to. The “test” was open note, open book, open phone, they could ask me or anyone else anything they wanted to. After about 15-20 minutes, students made presentations.

As necessary, different people would “interrupt” to ask a question, make a correction, or suggest other perspectives. It was fun! This Final was from 5-8 pm, so we had supper as well! One student brought a large Chick-fil-A nugget tray, others brought various foods, too!

Students demonstrated a degree of learning and comradeship that would be not just “invisible” but “deleted” during a  regular Final Exam. 

I asked my Texas History and Mexican American History I students if they would like to do a discussion-based Final Exam – there were no objections!

In Mexican American History I we did a number of activities. I asked students what they would leave out if they wrote a textbook about Mexican American History up through 1900 and where they would start (both in terms of place and time). We wrote a poem as a class. We made a list of our biggest hopes and biggest fears and discussed how these do and/or do not relate to various times, places, and peoples throughout early Mexican American History. 

We also took time to reflect on how much we covered across the semester. These students read FIVE challenging books (by choice!) and wrote somewhere around fifty pages (by choice!) over the semester. We reviewed the White/Black binary, the complications of the Butterfly Effect. For about thirty minutes I just listened to the three students in this class talk about everything we’ve learned – it was wonderful – I was constantly smiling.

We had conversations that could never happen with a traditional written Final Exam.

During the Fall 2016 semester, I taught my sixth section of Texas History, and this was the best group to date. They worked incredibly hard and were always ready to discuss the material! For the Final Exam, students came in and the first thing I asked them to do was to “draw the typical Texan.” We did this the first day of class, too, and we discussed the differences. We also wrote a class poem and made lists of hopes and fears and discussed how they apply to people throughout Texas History. One “hope” was passing a Final Exam. Thought-provoking conversations resulted when discussing how this applies or doesn’t apply to an enslaved Black person in Texas in 1850 or to an Indian in a Spanish mission or to one of the first European colonists in Texas.

The thoughts and perspectives that emerged with everyone pulling their knowledge together were simply beautiful. We laughed many times during this Final Exam.

In both Texas History and Mexican American History I we spent time discussing various topics and peoples that we did not discuss, we reviewed some basic geography, and we discussed various emotional demands of college.

The poem was a particularly fun exercise. I asked for a volunteer who is a quick typist. The goal was to write a free verse/free prose poem that discusses various content, emotions, reactions, and so on related to the class. Someone started. Anyone could say anything. There was only one rule: Everything said goes in the poem in that order. So someone accidentally said something like “I don’t know” or “We’re all crazy” – that went in the poem too! Poems allow for the expression of creativity and knowledge without being bound by socially constructed conventions of grammar. 

For a written component, students in each class wrote a letter to me discussing what they enjoyed most and least, what they really learned, what the course and content meant to them, and anything else they wanted to share. These were outstanding – students really do well with assignments that allow them to shape what they do and say and that are more personal. 

In each class, the last component of the Final Exam was to take a class selfie!! I present those to you in the slide show below: 

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I’ll for sure be making some tweaks for the next go around, but it was so much fun doing something different. We made memories. We embraced the freedom and privilege we have to learn and to discuss complex ideas.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview and that you are inspired to try something new next semester! 🙂 Let me know what thoughts you have!

And I’m so lucky to have group after group of excellent students who enjoy trying all of the new things I want to try!

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda