The Final Final

Next week my school holds final examinations. I used to be a big believer in finals, but my students regard them—nearly universally—with disgust. I don’t blame them. At their age, I may have felt as persecuted. However, their hatred of exams often gets in the way of their performing well on them. They have trouble approaching challenges with spirit and determination when they feel so put upon. Their responses are sometimes perfunctory, more indicative of exhaustive diligence than curiosity or sincere interest. And, to me, that’s a shame. Call me a foolish idealist, but I don’t think exams HAVE to be horrible. Like most things in school, they are what we make them.

This morning, the anticipation of giving (and grading) exams brought out something impish in me. I started thinking about the exam I’d like to give them, one that would challenge and exercise their beliefs about education and why they are in school at all.

Then I decided to write that exam. Here it is:

Literature Final Examination: May 26, 2009


  1. You will have no time limit on this exam—take as much time as you think is necessary to complete it to your satisfaction. As far as I’m concerned, you have the rest of your life if you’d like.
  2. No question on this test has a correct answer. I’ll assess the thoughtfulness of your responses, including (but hardly limited to) their focus, substance, and good sense. Answers offering new thinking and insight will receive the highest scores. Ones that don’t attempt these attributes won’t score well at all.
  3. Read the instructions for each section carefully and complete the tasks required. If at some point during this examination, however, you see alternate approaches or alternate requirements that are just as challenging—perhaps more interesting to you—amend or modify this test. Explain your changes thoroughly. Bear in mind that your changes will also be assessed.

I. True-False (20%)—Indicate whether each of the following statements is true or false by placing a T or F in the space provided. You will receive two points for each response evident in your behavior, as determined by my observation all year. You may receive partial credit.

_____1. The study of literature is a valuable aspect of education.

_____2. Everyone has some curiosity.

_____3. If learning results, any motive for studying is acceptable.

_____4. All learning depends on having an effective teacher.

_____5. Empathy is the most important trait of a careful reader.

_____6. All forms of writing make similar demands of a writer.

_____7. Exposing the intentions and reasoning of an author is the only aim of studying literature.

_____8. No one work will please or displease all readers.

_____9. The authority of an author rests more with the reader than with the writer.

_____10. Schooling is not, ultimately, for students but for some broader social purpose.

II. Short Essay (40%)—Choose two of the statements in section I (one true and one false) and, for each, write a short essay that justifies and explains your answer. Where relevant and effective, include specific references to the material we studied this year and your personal experience in this class. Each answer is twenty points and will receive some suitable percentage of that total based on its clarity, honesty, and sincerity.

III. Personal Response (15%)—Find a way to impart a moment you learned something important in this class. An essay is acceptable, but you are certainly not limited to that means of communication. You will find paper, paints, markers, and a mini-keyboard under your desk. Whatever your choice, however, be sure your work is focused, vivid, and moving in some way. You will receive up to ten points for your response, and another five points will be set aside for how well you matched your message and your means of expressing it.

IV. Final Essay (25%)—Write a fully developed essay in reply to ONE of the prompts below. Forget everything you’ve been taught or told about proper essay form. Your work will be assessed by how illuminating and interesting it is, period.

1. Scholars and critics revere nearly all the literature we’ve encountered this year. Choose a work you did NOT appreciate and account for your reaction to it. Why didn’t it reach you and where did the problem lie, with you or with the work itself?

2. Discuss a classmate whose responses to literature you particularly admire. What is it about his or her ideas and interpretations that strike you as exciting and interesting? What have you learned about reading—and studying literature—from this classmate?

3. Write an essay that reveals something important your teacher doesn’t know. This “something important” can take many forms—it could be vital information, a misunderstanding of a text, or something more personal to yourself—just be specific and forthright and explain why that deficit is significant.

4. Out of all the literature we’ve read this year, what is the one line, passage, image, etc. you think you will remember forever? Explore the meaning, implication, consequence, and worth of your choice and account for its effect on you. What in the combination of this item, this year, and your personal evolution makes it so significant?

I really rather doubt this examination would make any of my students feel better about taking finals, but I might learn more about them than I do on my real final exams.

And I feel better having gotten it out of my system!


Filed under Education, Essays, Exams, Experiments, High School Teaching, Laments, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

2 responses to “The Final Final

  1. That’s an exam that I would have enjoyed!

    I’d like to give an exam like this one a shot too. My wife suggested I might use this post to write others—the true-false questions are issues I debate with students frequently—and maybe I will return to some of these questions.

  2. David – this is the exam that would have me pulsing with excitement and purpose – mainly because it factored in not only what i had learned during the year, but also because it required an honest, considered and personal response from me, the examinee. G

    I’d love to give an exam like this one (without its snarky moments) and see what students came up with. I think one of the biggest deficits in exams is fresh thinking. They understand they are trying to show themselves to their advantage and study really hard, but the student who can reassemble the material in new ways is really rare. Most communicate more knowledge than understanding or insight. Maybe that’s inevitable, but it makes grading exams a rather tedious process. Thanks for visiting!

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