Every year about this time, I sit down to write final examinations and wish I could create another sort of exam altogether. I like to think the finals I give are a reasonable test of students’ knowledge, understanding, and skill, but they seldom reveal whether the literature reached students in any personally meaningful way. I seldom know if what I teach is relevant or important. Even impressive responses lack independent spirit and hint at obligation rather than sincerity.
Students want to please me, seldom themselves. They might say that I shouldn’t expect more, that asking them to prove themselves—and according to my standards—puts them in survival mode. The experience can’t be about self-expression, they might say, because what student would ever, of his or her own volition, take a final exam?
Still I daydream. Instead of writing the exams I need to, I devise alternatives. It happens every year. I want a truer (and more interesting) measure of what they’ve learned.
When I was in college, a myth circulated that a Biology teacher gave a one question final, “Why life?” Naturally, the story ended with one bold student answering “Why not?” and receiving an “A,” but I would never be satisfied with an answer so clever… or elusive. I like the single, simple question idea, but I want to see their minds truly at work.
So here is my dream Final:
Literature Final Examination: December 13, 2011
You have two hours to work and only one question to answer, so, before you begin, take a moment to reflect on the function of this examination. As this exam is an instrument I use to assess your mastery of the literature you’ve encountered and your skill as a writer, I hope to see:
- Precise and thorough knowledge of these novels, stories, poems, and other works
- Attention to insights gleaned through our discussions and activities
- Comprehensive understanding of the works’ implications and their connections to one another (and, if relevant, the aims and techniques of literature in general)
- Focused choices about the range and domain of your pursuit
- Resourceful and relevant use of detail to illustrate observations, interpretations, arguments, and epiphanies
- Sensible and understandable reasoning expressed in planning and organization
- Concise, accurate, and deft prose
- Legible handwriting
None of what’s listed above should be a surprise to you—of course you want to show yourself to your greatest advantage.
More than any of that, however, I want to know you’ve grown and that studying this literature has enhanced your capacity to think, to express yourself, and to understand the important issues and ideas these works raise. I need, in other words, to see a sincere effort to grapple with questions and reach answers satisfying to you and a reader.
You will receive no clarification beyond these instructions, so please don’t ask about length, form, how many works you should cite, or any other choice rightfully belonging to you.
Choose ONE (wisely):
1. If the literature we studied this semester were all that remained of our civilization, what might future archeologists say of us?
2. Address an irreconcilable conflict between two of the authors we’ve encountered and come to terms with it yourself—who is right, and how do you know?
3. Explain something you discovered about yourself as you studied this literature this semester.
4. What is the most important truth about human nature you’ve learned this semester?
5. It’s the morning after you hosted a dinner party for some of the authors and/or characters you met this semester.
6. What do you see as dispensable and indispensable in what we read this semester, and what key quality separates them?
7. Imagine one of the authors we studied sitting in the desk beside you. How do you think he or she would regard the novels, stories, poems, and other works we encountered?
8. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and this semester you’ve been the beholder. Offer a definition of beauty based on what you’ve seen.
9. Why do you study literature?
10. Devise and answer a question of your own commensurate with those above.
Some notes on assessing student’s responses: I distrust grades’ emphasis on extrinsic motivation. Many students behave dishonestly on exams because they fear jeopardizing their mark. I’d want to grade this exam pass-fail, hoping to determine, on the most basic level, whether a student deserves credit. A “pass” would mean something though, and I would not grant them universally. Ideally, I would invite students who failed to return the next day until they passed. That’s crazy, I know.
If I had to grade it, I’d write only final comments suggesting skills that seem strong and weak in the response. If a student protested that the exam was not his or her best work, I’d let the student retake the exam. Students could retake it three times or until they attained grades they could be happy about, whichever came first.
In either case, I’d reserve the right to stop reading the moment I was satisfied or dissatisfied with a student’s response… unless, of course, something compelled me to continue.