Thursday, September 13, 2007

A New Kind of Test (For Me)

In the past, I've been a big fan of the take-home midterm. Why? 1) I don't need to take class time for tests. 2) I get something type-written, rather than having to decipher handwriting under duress. But I decided to try something new this semester in one of my classes, and I'll begin to see how it works out in a couple of weeks.

I've decided to do two tests in class, one after the first unit and one after the second unit. Why the change? Hmmm. There are a lot of reasons.

Probably the biggest reason is that I want to demonstrate to students that the stuff that they do when I make them do group work in class actually has meaning. I tend to do a lot of group stuff in lower-level lit classes, mainly because it is a way of teaching them to fucking read literary texts. By getting them into a group, giving them 3 or 4 questions to focus them, and then coming back together to discuss the stuff, I'm showing them what I do with a literary text without the prompt. I'm showing them how to read literature on their own. Ultimately, I think that's the job of general requirement type lit courses. You should come out of those knowing how to fucking read literature without a professor to tell you what it "means." Now, in a take-home, I can't really connect what they do in group stuff in class to the exam because they've got all of the stuff in front of them. All their notes, all the texts. I can make sure that they can use all of that stuff to analyze, but I can't really get them to show how they're thinking in the same way. Also, I think take-homes are kind of cruel. As much as you might tell students to spend x amount of time on them, they don't. The good students spend way too much time (as I always did), the bad students don't spend nearly enough (because they leave it until the last minute). So. I have devised an in-class test that will take 1 hour.

The first two parts are totally based on stuff that we've covered in class. (Part of the reason for this is because I've had some issues with absenteeism, and I kind of want to fuck over the ones who think that they can phone it in. It's funny, a recurring theme on my evaluations is that 1) I don't understand this stuff if I don't come to class! and 2) if you don't do the reading "you're screwed." Well, duh! If you didn't need to come to class, why bother coming to college! You're paying for me to illuminate this shit for you! That's the whole point of me! And yes, in a LITERATURE class you really do have to read! What did you THINK?)

So the test. The first, identifications of important quotations. Five quotations, give me the author and text. And the five quotations are things I've harped on multiple times. The second part has to do with linking texts to common characteristics of the unit that we're studying. Again, stuff I've harped on over and over in class. What I'm excited about, though, are parts three and four. In part three, I've given them three poems that are not on the syllabus but that are by authors that we've studied. I'm going to choose one of these poems for the exam. And the section of the exam will ask them to do the exact same thing with these poems that we've done in class with poems on the syllabus. Tell me what the poem is generally about, talk about the language and how it gets you to the meaning, and connect those first to things to the themes of the unit. So all of the stuff that they've been doing in groups, ultimately, is on the test. I'm asking them to show me that they can read a poem. I've told them that I'll answer questions if they have them before the exam, so I'm not being totally draconian about this exercise. My point isn't that they guess what I want them to see in these poems. It's that I want them to demonstrate that they've learned how to engage with the literature on their own - that they're not just waiting for me to explain everything in class.

The final portion of the exam will be a close reading section, that has everything to do with the stuff that I talked about on the blog about close reading, and one that I will also have had the students practice in class. I'm going to pick a passage that we've discussed at length in class (again, attendance here will help a brother out), but if you have done the reading, and if you just follow the steps, you can do fine even if you didn't memorize everything from your notes. The point, again, is not that you spit out what happened in class, but that you show me that you can read.

I'm oddly excited about seeing the results of this experiment. Both because I think that it links my pedagogy to assessment in an important way (god, I hate the jargon of this shit, but I do feel that way) and because I'm excited to see what they do with parts 3 and 4 of the exam. You know, most of all I want to see my students thinking.

I think that's why I'm enjoying the "gross" class I'm teaching right now. I see their brains working as I look out at them. Even when they're quiet, they're thinking. It's visible. That has a lot to do with the students taking that class, and it has a lot to do with the subject matter of the course. In other words, it's not all about me, or even mostly about me.

BUT. That's really what I aim for in all of my classes. And I realized this summer that I'm not achieving that in all of them. So this new idea for tests (not so new, to do tests in class, but this kind of test that I've designed here, kind of new, and even the format new for me) is about trying to get them thinking when they take the test. It's about trying to make even the assessment situation an active one, and one that has a direct link to the "active learning" stuff that I do in the classroom. Radical, huh?


Mano said...

I did this for a course I taught last year. It was also my first time moving away from take-home to in-class. It worked extremely well. The only big complaints I got were from a student who wrote the kinds of things you mention on the evals--he was upset that he had to come to class, do the reading, or any real work, basically. It was easier to grade, a real time-saver, and a good measure/demonstration of what they'd learned. Hope it works well for you, too.

Doctor Pion said...

I like your approach. As you might guess, getting students to take their homework seriously is a problem in physics (what I teach) and math classes.

One of my main tactics is to be sure that I can show them that some of the exam problems (used to set the 60% score level) are basically just a new version of a homework problem. And I point this out, explicitly, the day after the test. You might find that this helps make the point you are trying to make.

Another is to make a scatter plot of exam grade versus homework effort. (In your case it might be attendance and class participation.) The correlation might surprise and shock the slackers who think no one else is doing any work either. I find the extra work to be very effective, and I only have to do it on the first test.