Category Archives: Exams

Writing in Smoke

1643fig1Forgive my discontent—I’ve been grading for seven days straight and am fighting an overwhelming sense of irrelevancy that started with one simple event.

You see, the word “want” has a double meaning. As a verb it’s “to desire.” As a noun—particularly in nineteenth century texts—it means “a lack.” So, when Emerson says, “The reliance on property… is the want of self-reliance,” it’s clear he intends to communicate property reduces our self-reliance. He goes on to explain that we depend upon the things we have instead of upon ourselves. Having property, we need not rely on our own skills, talents, and acumen.

You see the problem of mistaking one meaning of “want” for the other. If you think “want” is a way to say “desire” (the noun), you might think Emerson favored property, that the desire for property is a desire for self-reliance.

I offered just this explanation to a class, and they nodded with understanding. They heard me. Their comprehension of the paragraph broadened, and a student explained how it made sense, how this notion fit with all of Emerson’s ideas. A few wrote it down, but a very few. After all, they understood, and the moment would be memorable.

Later I gave the class, in advance, passages that might appear on a quiz. One of those was the passage above. On the quiz I asked, “What does ‘want of self-reliance’ mean?”

Over three-quarters answered “a desire for self-reliance.”

It’s likely my state of mind assigns too much meaning to their error, and it’s an ugly thing to shame students. And I’m ashamed I’m doing it. I like these students, a lot. Yet, no frustration is greater than feeling inaudible. Between papers I’ve formed cynical theories for why they would miss this question. I have 15:

1. Anything significant appears in multiple formats, different media, and in duplicated settings, and I only explained the confusion between “want” and “desire” a couple of times.

2. Why write anything down you think you’ll remember? Why remember anything you can find elsewhere? Is memory of obscure information even important?

3. These days, everything is redundant, or—if it isn’t—anything that isn’t redundant isn’t important.

4. As consumers we choose products we want and need. We know what’s important.

5. Data that takes more than three seconds to load requires patience, and I take so much longer.

6. The more we seek and praise ease and efficiency in learning, the harder real learning seems.

7. Pleasing—even when it’s insincere—is the way to go. Easier to appear than to be.

8. Text and uninterrupted voice are linear, and words travel like boxcars on rails you can’t get off. I love to ride the rails but my tastes are peculiar.

9. Electronic media is bifurcation, every track splitting into two new lines every moment.

10. Until Emerson includes sound, images, movement, and links, his work will seem to come from another dimension where sound, images, movement, or links don’t exist.

11. If you can’t guess what’s inside frogs, you have to dissect one. Explaining Emerson is dissecting a frog. The frog rarely survives.

12. Cursors slide and I want students to bear down. Their pens and pencils barely graze paper and a trillion miles of curlicues knot with themselves. It’s all one Jackson Pollock, lovely but inscrutable.

13. Information passes, a parade barely visible beyond the screens interposing between us and the world.

14. The spotlight I stand in isn’t any more hot or cool than any other illuminated space vying for attention.

15. You don’t have to understand Emerson or like him to fulfill his warning that property–electronic property–might own us.

None of these explanations help at all. I’m not a crowing Jeremiah. Quite the contrary, in my imagination I hear colleagues accuse me of ossification, of denial, of being a Luddite, of not adapting to the material I’m given, of not being resourceful or inventive enough, of teaching material inappropriate to the grade level, of having a bad attitude, of teaching outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant texts, of taking tacks no longer viable, of removing myself from the world instead of immersing myself in it, of not following where the puck is going, of mistaking different for worse, of not being student-centered, of undervaluing new ways of learning, of focusing too narrowly on deficits instead of assets, of falling hopelessly behind.

Over the last week or so I’ve examined and accepted all these personal faults. I feel them… and acutely too. I know how strident I sound, and I’m sorry for it. But I can’t help myself. I also fear the future. As a teacher, it’s my job to pass on skills I’ve learned to value as part of my own self-reliance.

Or do I have that wrong too?

I guess I’m ready for a break.


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Another Final

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.

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A running coach once told me the muscles you use sprinting at the end of a race are different from the ones you’ve relied on before. That’s absurd, of course. But, as the finish line approaches, I summon new belief in the energy I started with.

The end of the school year is challenging. The students—especially the seniors—want to be finished and, really, I understand entirely. I know the achy restlessness that makes you unsure of what you want to do… except that, whatever it is, you’re sure it isn’t this.

But I wish my students could call on other muscles.

I don’t run much anymore. Many former racers probably do what I do: conserve miles instead of spend them. It’s a different way of exhausting your energy, like letting the air out a balloon, slowly, just fast enough, assuring a steady stream, holding back for the last, last, at least somewhat explosive, puff. Husbandry instead of enthusiasm, or enthusiastic self-restraint and control in preparation for the closing moments.

As the school year ends, husbandry grows old. In running, the word for an accelerated finish is a “kick,” and the adjective often used to describe a good kick is “furious.” Neither term makes much sense unless you think of a just-shot cowboy kicking as he expires or imagine him angry at the world and getting in his last blows. I hope I’m far from death, but I understand fury, a feeling that visits you, a passion like beating wings, an alien compulsion.

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Furies were winged, serpentine goddesses devoted to chasing and punishing people who had not properly paid for crimes, and that is exactly the sort of fury I feel these days when, instead of studying for tests or writing papers due the next day, sophomores chase each other down crowded hallways or shriek over a YouTube video just outside a classroom where I’m trying to teach, or duck into my office in a futile attempt to avoid the latest volley in a got-you-last swatting duel.

The trick this time of year is directing fury rather than watching, almost like a stranger, as fury escapes me. I’ve had some angry episodes recently, and each leaves me a little more spent—and a little more resentful—as I try to gather myself to sprint.

As a runner, I felt proud of my kick. In my best races, fury accumulated like air-borne electricity, struck like lightning, and coursed down wires to awaken vivid life in me. I wasn’t the sort to drift across the line or swivel to see who might be near me. While I couldn’t always match the speed of others, I took terrible offense at anyone passing me in the last half-mile. My coaches advised, “Be the hunter, not the hunted,” and I wanted that, to be a hunter bearing down on the unsuspecting.

The trouble is, I’m older now, and lightning is just as likely to fry an innocent woodland creature as fill a battery. Fatigue erodes discipline. In me, it undermines tolerance. Not everyone has this kick in them. I’m making a point of warning everyone around me—beware, fury is near.

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Grading December

This time of year, assessment fatigue creeps up on me.  I know the immense responsibility of responding to student work, but I grow tired of judging the merit of what they produce.  Hours of reading essays, tests, and rewrites improves my attention to students’ writing and thinking—what’s missing, confusing, promising, what’s singing and what’s stammering, what’s reaching out to readers and what’s just fulfilling the assignment.  However, the final act—writing A, B, C, (or worse) and deciding what a student’s effort deserves—becomes painful.  I’d rather skip it.

In a creative writing course last year, I experimented with assessing the volume and quality of student effort instead of judging the merit of what they produced.  To pass the course, students had to complete major writing projects conscientiously, through multiple drafts and workshops. But they could raise their grade from there by choosing to write smaller, optional assignments. I reserved the right at the end of the semester to lower or raise their final average by up to five points if they exceeded or disappointed expectations, but few fell short.  For the most part, students worked hard to reach the grade they desired.  And all I had to do was make challenging and inspiring assignments, monitor what students had completed, and assess the quality of their effort.  While I responded to all their work thoughtfully with the same volume of comments I always do, I did not put a letter on any assignment all semester.

As exams approach, I’ve been wondering, would it be possible to devise a “contract exam”?  So, though I should have been writing my real exams, I’ve written a contract exam instead.  I know it’s not realistic—I know it would never work, and I confess to indulging a little wish fulfillment in creating it.  I wrote this exam for fun and think of it as a sort of fantasy of what an exam might be…


Before you begin, please review these general directions:

  • By fulfilling the tasks on this examination, you will gather points towards 100.
  • This exam is unlimited—you may spend as much time on it as you like and respond to as many questions as you like.
  • However, you should spend no more time on it than you like—writing that is perfunctory, desultory, spiritless, disengaged, or generally obligatory is unlikely to receive points.
  • Please choose tasks that inspire you.  Doing everything on this exam—the shotgun approach—is counterproductive and will not yield success.

Section I: Must (75%)—In order to pass this exam, you must complete THREE of the following tasks connected to critical moments in the works you have read.  As always, your writing will be assessed for its focus, organization, and substance.  However, those comments will be for your personal growth as a writer only.  It is up to you to decide what is the proper length, form, and content of your responses.  You will receive full points if you complete what you are being asked to do in a credible fashion.

For THREE different literary works, write about a moment when…

  • a main character recognizes something important about him or herself
  • the author reveals a characteristic approach or technique
  • a secondary element (minor character, setting, motif, etc.) supports a major theme
  • a work establishes a question or issue it means to address but not answer
  • the resolution of tension or contradiction becomes clear

Section II: Might (30%)—All of the six point tasks below are optional. Please proceed only if a task inspires specific thoughts or reactions.  You will receive points if your responses add to a reader’s understanding of the work in question. As in the first section, commentary on your ideas and your expression of them will be a means of developing your writing skills.

  1. Take a moment in a work in from one genre and convert it to another—turn a poem’s line into a scene from a short story, make a scene in a story into a poem, etc.
  2. Speak in the voice of one of the writers we’ve studied and talk about what you are trying to accomplish in one of your works.
  3. Imagine a director has chosen to adapt one of the works we’ve encountered—write a letter advising him or her of the particular challenges the work presents.
  4. Discuss one personal connection you made with one of the works we’ve read—when did you say “I really understand what that’s about”?
  5. Choose the writer we’ve encountered who seems to come closest to your own view of what writing should be and do and discuss why.
  6. Create a conversation between characters in separate works we’ve read.  What might they have to say to one another if they knew each knew both stories?
  7. Recommend one of the works we’ve encountered to a friend—what is it exactly that makes it worth reading… perhaps because it offers something this particular friend?
  8. Describe a main character during a private moment in which he or she says nothing.  Communicate your understanding of this character within this constraint.
  9. Explain how an absence in one of the works we’ve encountered helps establish what the author hoped to communicate.
  10. Use a statement from one of the works we encountered and write a two minute radio piece expressing why that statement has been memorable and meaningful to you.
  11. Address the work that gave you the most difficulty and account for why.
  12. Devise a task along the lines of the ones above—but not covered in any of them—and respond to it.

Section III: Recovery Points—You may receive points to compensate for losses in the first two sections by writing a letter about your experience reading literature in this class. All decisions about the length, form, content, and direction of this letter are your own—please think about what you want to say.

When you have completed your work, please check it over to assure that you have presented yourself in the best possible light.  See you next semester.

Like I said, it would NEVER work.

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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!


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