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


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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5 replies

  1. Those are truly brilliant ideas, Dr. Pegoda. You are lucky to feel that you have academic freedom. When I started to teach at a public university in Texas (2002) I had assumed that I had such freedom. However, I knew I might not last at this place because of other attitudes they had. And, academic positions tend not to be permanent in this country. About 92% of PhDs won’t get those positions or any other jobs that require PhD skills, for any real length of time, if at all.

    For this reason, I decided to get involved in using active learning techniques with all of my students, even those in the large introductory courses (75-120 students). Back then the terms used were “case studies,” and “group activities.” I realized I would have to do this gradually. I got absolutely no support from my school for my work. In fact, when I said to my chair, “I thought we were supposed to have academic freedom,” he told me those were “dangerous words” around here.

    I just heard a report on the news that foreign exchange students in our public schools ALL come from countries where they take their high school work very seriously, and especially, math. In the US, athletic ability is considered of higher priority than knowledge skills, where athletic ability is not considered at all in those countries. In the US there were more tests and more dependence on memorization. In all of those other countries, analysis and relationship to themselves and those living around them were most important. No wonder the US ranks near the bottom of the list of countries with similar economic development when it comes to math skills and only mediocre in all other subjects, with little change from year to year! So anyone trying to do what you are doing will face students with little practice with non-memorization techniques.

    When I decided to do case studies in group discussions in beginning biology, I did it because I realized that students won’t learn biology until they talked biology. My fellow faculty thought these kids were not getting fairly assessed on the group activities, that it was somehow an easy “A.” I put in all sorts of assessment methods to be able to tell who was riding on someone else’s coattails. It was not quite as easy an A as some thought. I got pretty much the same distribution of scores related to case studies that I got on a typical “objective” exam.

    I also learned how to write case studies that could have a wide variety of correct answers to its questions, so that students from very different backgrounds and perspectives could be graded fairly. Most published case studies have questions that could be answered too easily by Google. Many of the questions I asked sound similar to the ones you asked your students, especially relating the material to their own experiences, and not just to mental or physical health, but to important questions associated with what was being discussed in the news or on the street.

    Now, granted, doing this for the smaller classes (18-25 students) was much easier. However, a major change in attitude in my introductory biology students was seen at one final exam where I put a case study after a very short written test, where each group had to demonstrate energy transfer in front of the entire class. A seething angry mass of students will change rather abruply after watching a series of comedic and ingenious acts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • After reading your post on Final Exams, I feel like sharing my own experience, an experience based on being a student in a “Survey of Computer Information Systems” class. Mr. Shipley advised and even promoted everyone working with each other on the tests.

      His rationale for the students assisting each other was people who knew the answers would reinforce the knowledge by teaching it to someone else, and the student who did not know the answer would be provided and learn it themselves.

      I guess it may be a better idea for a class at a community college, but I still find the concept/the rationale a technique I may utilize in the future…

      I thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Fun and a fascinating concept. I bet the students in all the classes never forgot their finals in your class.

    Liked by 1 person


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