Thursday, April 07, 2016

Now where did I stash those thumbscrews?

I was looking over the final exam from the last time I taught a certain class (four years ago!), and the word that came to mind is "punitive." It was a Spanish Inquisition kind of exam, full of thumbscrew questions that squeeze the students for specific bits of vocabulary and  squeeze them on the rack of narrow interpretations. What led me to write that kind of exam? I can't imagine giving this year's class that kind of exam. Have the students changed or have I?

This year's class loves to discuss the literature and they always come up with interesting connections among works, so I've been giving them questions that let them tell me what they know and even get a little creative: If the male characters in these two stories got together to talk about gender roles, what would they say? If a character in this story could give one piece of advice to a character from that story, what would it be? I'm still giving them some quote identifications, but then I ask them a question that requires them to analyze or discuss ideas in the quotes, so it's not just rote memorization. I don't believe my new exam is any easier than the old one, but I certainly think it's more enjoyable--or maybe just less painful.

But who knows? Most of my literature classes come up frequently in the rotation of courses, so change occurs gradually, a little bit each year; looking back at course materials I last used four years ago, on the other hand, reveals just how much I've adjusted my pedagogy in that time--for the better, I hope. Maybe four years from now I'll look at this year's exam as akin to waterboarding, but that's further evidence that I'm committed to continual improvement. 

(Alternately, I'm becoming too frail to wield the tools of torture.)    

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