Thursday, April 28, 2016

Three cheers for final exams! (Well, maybe two and a half)

My first exam as a college student was in a Western Civ class and consisted of a single question: "Outline the history of ancient Egypt."

I'm doomed, I thought, because let's face it: no matter how many names, dates, and events you frantically scribble on a page in an hour's time, you're bound to leave something out. I left that exam certain not only that I'd flunked but that I would soon flunk out of everything, lose my scholarships, and go back to Florida to work at the orange juice bottling plant. Doomed.

I'm sure some of my students felt that way this week. One student told me my American Lit Survey final exam was the hardest exam he's ever taken, and I don't doubt him because it's the hardest exam I ever give. The questions are not tricky or obscure or even unexpected (since I provide a thorough study guide), but students have to write a lot and do some original thinking about a mess of poems. Most students took two hours to complete the exam and several took the full two and a half.

And most of them aced it.

Seriously: the vast majority of grades on this exam were A's and B's, suggesting that when students are challenged to show what they've learned and given sufficient time to do so, they can produce some really amazing work.

We all complain about the burden of grading all those final exams, but let's not overlook the rewards: when we give students a chance to shine, we get to bask in the glow they produce. Even on my most brutal exams, students find interesting connections among literary works, write engaging analytical essays, and demonstrate mastery of concepts we've been developing throughout the semester. 

And they do all this even though final exams don't really make much difference in their grades.

Dirty little secret here: unless a student totally bombs a final exam, it won't have much impact on the student's final grade in my classes. It might nudge a borderline grade one way or the other, but final exam grades rarely move the world or send a student packing for the orange juice plant.

And my first college exam didn't send me packing either. Much to my surprise, I aced it, which provided a boost of confidence that carried me through the rest of the semester. I may have encountered more difficult tests since that time (I'm looking at you, Comprehensive Exams!), but that first baptism by fire made me feel first I'm doomed and then I can do this. This week I'm passing that experience on to my students, and every time they show me that they really can do it, I want to stand up and cheer.

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