This past Friday, I was issued a challenge regarding the format of final exams. Now, the email was to the entire English department, but I took it as an opportunity to challenge myself about the format of the exams in two courses that I thoroughly enjoy: ENG3C and ENG3U.
Both exams require students to use class time in the days leading up to the exam to outline an essay that responds to a prompt. Students are required to use the texts studied in class to answer the prompt. This requires that students understand the texts we studied because it is essential that they be able to make connections between the texts.
The email that spurred some new thinking made these suggestions:
"Consider adding a new poem/story/article/image on exam day and having them apply their understanding of the 'big ideas' to that text, OR use that text as an additional piece of evidence to support their overall thesis.
The final exam should be a test of their ability to apply their understanding and skills to a new situation (which, for us, most often means a new text). "
I think important points are made in this email, but I also think that having students use texts they are familiar with still tests their ability to understand and demonstrate their skills. Students are being required to "apply their understanding and skills to a new situation" because they are now being asked to make connections between the texts studied, something that they haven't been required to do. That said, making connections isn't new, but making connections in response to new prompts is a new situation.
There may be some level of "ease" because students are given the prompts ahead of time, and are allowed the time to prepare. But this accommodation is used, because in previous years, administration has suggested that students be given the final exam ahead of time; there should be "no surprises". Now this can be remedied by giving students a variety of prompts ahead of time to get students thinking, but there be a new prompt provided on exam day.
As I am a teacher that likes to experiment, I came up with some ways to alter the ENG3C and ENG3U exams so that there is a different level of "new". As I am not teaching ENG3U this semester, I haven't put much thought into how that exam could be changed. For ENG3C, my teaching partner and I have some decisions to make about how we want that final exam to look.
Overall, I don't think there is a RIGHT or WRONG or BETTER or WORSE answer to what the final exams look like. I think that as long as a final exam assesses student understanding of the course ideas and skills in a fair and reasonable way, then we are doing okay.