Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

(Please note, this idea was also the idea that I submitted for my application to the Microsoft Expert Educator Program for which I was selected. Here is the video I submitted as part of that application. I presented about this topic in Barcelona, Spain in March)

Ahhhhhhhh, it’s that time of year, and if you’ve read my BLOG posts over the years you know I am not big on standardized tests and exams, but instead of dreading the upcoming exam “season”, I am so excited because it’s one of my favorite times of the year.

WHAT?! Better let me explain

I do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, and hardware.

In my 9th grade classes, students pair up and put on a demonstration/presentation table for two of the topics that we studied this semester in class. They prepare an entire table display area as well as an engaging hands-on presentations to show-describe-present about-explain-teach what they’ve learned. They dress professionally and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. So, we’ll have 40+ parents and 20+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers piece by piece. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged by us to ask lots of questions and find out “why” as often as “what”, but also to enjoy their own hands-on experience with their children as teachers. Parents wander around and interact with other students, parents, board members, and other teachers. Truly a wonderful night! What a great chance to finally find out the real answer to the dinner-time question, “What did you do in school today?,” “nothin”. Uhm, I beg to differ. And, you know what the hidden secret here is: They spend so many more hours preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for a normal exam. And I’ll argue that most students forget within hours what they crammed in their head for exams….yet my students will remember their presentation for years(and for some a lifetime).

Finally, students really do know more than their parents

In my 10th grade class, students will again have their parents involved in their final exam, but this time the students will actually be leading their parents through an learning workshop. Each student will choose to lead their parent(s) through the entire process of either 1) building a small XBox game , or 2) building a small website with SQL database and data entry form. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. As any teacher will vouch, it’s one thing to do something; it’s an entirely different thing to teach someone else to do it. In preparation for the event, students spend the week before designing the entire project and practice “teaching” the entire project to a fellow student–that way when mom and dad get there, it’s not their first time. When students start to realize that they have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets, they start to dig in! And because they are all “in this together”, the collaboration that occurs during that week before is amazing. As in the previous year, students spend so much more time preparing for this than they ever would for a paper exam. The look on the faces of mom and dad when they complete the project is worth all the time and energy that goes into this. Now, when dad asks, “What did you do in Computer Science today”, he gets a dramatically different answer. That’s what I’m talking ‘about. This year, I added a small component which I really liked: students are allowed to bring in a TweetCheat: 140 characters of anything they want to have at their fingertips during the workshop…otherwise they have to lead the entire project from their head. Some use it to list steps, others to jot down hard to remember code samples, some use it for notes.

A student demonstrates her Kinect interactive simulation: a CSI crime scene investigation where you collect evidence, extract DNA, process the DNA and use that data to determine the culprit.

In the 11th grade classes, students present yet again, but this time it is to a panel of expert Venture Capitalist judges who will hear their presentations, run the projects themselves, and evaluate each student’s performance, code, and project. Students spend an entire semester working on one project (a game, activity, or simulation for the Xbox game system using Kinect, Dancepad, and/or hand controller) In a science fair-like scenario, judges tour the room spending time with each student, where students can present however they see fit depending on who the judge is. The presentation they give to a successful entrepreneur business executive is very different than the one they give to the Marketing Director of a company and even more different than the one they would give to a professional game designer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will be investing money into the projects in which they saw potential. Each judge gets $5000 that they can distribute as they like. (The panel consists of one high school senior, one alumni from our Computer Science program, one professional game designer, one game design firm marketing director, one Computer Science teacher, one math teacher, one Microsoft executive, 1 professional from the IT industry, and two successful entrepreneurs from the community. Throughout the semester, we also discuss about the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and phsycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project. Because each judge is looking for something different, students have to determine the best way to present and demonstrate. The Computer Science teacher wants to hear about the challenges they faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the storyline of the project, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the game, the college student wants to hear how they programmed their game, etc. At the end of the evening, just for fun, we announce how much venture capital investment money each project received. What we see is that an average project with a great presentation can be effective…and in the same sense a really great project with a mediocre presentation can be ineffective. We try to help students have well-done, unique projects and that they determine the best way to present to each judge.

Some of the most amazing projects we’ve had over the year are:

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • Track and Field simulation with the player actually running down the track as they answer questions about history.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • SAT Vocabulary Practice using the Dancepad.
  • A discus throwing motion analysis program complete with demonstration videos.
  • A bow and arrow hunting game where you are hunting math problems as they fly across the sky.
  • A air piano style of music maker where you use your hands in the space around your body to play music

But, were these really exams?

Well, if we define exam as a culminating experience that requires students to bring in what they’ve learned and apply that to use it in new ways; if we define exams as a rigorous experience which really “tests” to see if students have learned the material and requires them to demonstrate that understanding; if we define exams as a chance to synthesize a large quantity of information….if the allow ourselves to let the exam itself be a learning experience which is actually something students look forward to and enjoy and take great pride in….

Then I’ll argue our exam not only meets all those criterion, but exceeds them. Students will spend 2-3 times longer preparing for this kind of effort than they would “studying” for a traditional exam. And because they cannot cram for this; because they can’t fake it; because we are not asking them to regurgitate a bunch of words but use them as a vocabulary to demonstrate , teach, and explain; because they are forced to create an entire presentation , it allows us to bring creativity, expression, visual, presentation, written, motion, language arts, fine arts, and Computer Science together in true cross curricular nature

The exam itself is a learning experience on its own.

Imagine if every exam they took was like that? I imagine the impression people have of exams would be very different than what most people have.

I’m getting a few hundred hits per day on this BLOG, so I know there are people from around the country (or world) reading this right now steaming with disagreement and anger, full of reasons why their objective multiple choice exam is better than this…still grasping onto the coat-tails of a long since outdated & shredded & broken & ineffective exam process. And this in-your-face BLOG post like this is not going to persuade them.

But, do I believe there are teachers, administrators, political leaders, community members,……even students out there who think there is a different way to look at education.

If something you read here makes sense, we should connect.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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