Anti-Exams: A different approach to final exams

I am not big on standardized tests and traditional paper 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 actually do have exams in my classes, but they are different than you are imagining.

Students present and demonstrate their expertise in robotics, game design, app 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 demonstrate-show-describe-present about what they’ve learned. They dress business professional and for an hour one evening, we invite all the parents in as our guests. We usually get 100% parental attendance! So, we’ll have 50+ parents and 30+ students in our library with sounds of robots, sound effects from programmed games, apps using audio and voice recognition, and various clankings of computer components being put together and taken apart as parents build computers. Lots of proud moms and dads who are charged to ask lots of questions and find out “why” in addition to the “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, community leaders, 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 many more time and energy preparing for this evening than they ever would studying for an 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). Ask any student in our CS program about their 9th grade presentation.

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 in C#, or 2) building a small website with HTML and CSS. Students are not allowed to touch the mouse or keyboard, so the pressure is on them to explain and teach well, so that parents can not only design it, but understand how they did it. In fact, they have to submit a sample of their teaching for part of their exam. 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. They have to lead their parents without any notes or cheat sheets! 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 actually 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.

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, test 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. But 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 or engineer. At the end of the evening, our “Venture Capitalist” judges panel will invest $5000 as they like. (The panel consists of community leaders, academic institution leaders, alumni, professional game designers, marketing directors, Computer Science and math teachers, business executives, and other professionals from industry. Throughout the semester, we also discuss the business side of Computer Science as well, so students think about marketing, promotion, target audience, demo and psycho-graphics, and elevator pitches as it relates to their own project and industry. 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 faced in order to figure out how to overcome programming problems, the game designer wants to hear about the sound effects, and graphics and user interface of the game, the marketing director wants to hear about the back story, the gamer wants to experience the “flow” of the experience, 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. For the judges, this may be the first time they have experienced a true 3D interactive motion controlled simulation, so students have to be excellent teachers as well.

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

  • 3D Flight Simulator using the human body as the wing control device, and the DancePAd for the flap controls.
  • DNA Crime Science CSI investigation where you collect samples, extract and analyze DNA with your hands.
  • A interactive music maker where you use your hands to play and actually hear different instruments
  • A program which monitors subtle body gestures as a person practices a speech
  • A system that leads a person through a series of physical tests to be used in concussion analysis
  • A physical therapy & self-rehabilitation system that leads a person through a series of specific stretches and injury recovery movements.

But, were these really exams, you might ask?

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.

Interestingly enough, pretty much every vocabulary word, concept, and skill that we learned and used during the semester is a part of these interactive experiences. In order to present to their truly authentic audiences, they HAVE to KNOW it! Isn’t that what we say we want in our exams?

The un-engaging multiple choice, fill-in-the blank, true-false exam is a long since outdated, shredded, broken, and ineffective tool. It doe not serve our students well. And saying it prepares them for college is simply passing the buck. But that can’t be why we give exams. So, why then do we actually give exams?

As an educator of 20+ years in public and private education, I am certain of 1 thing :

What we say we do in our exams is far different than what we actually do.

Here is what we say we do: Our exams allow students to consolidate the knowledge and learning from the whole class, synthesize and interpret it. They are able to look at the content as a whole instead of individual chapters. They will use the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy to apply their learning.

Here is what we do: Study the old tests and quizzes. Here is the study guide.

Why would we even need to give an exam study guide? Anything ever discussed, read, or done as a part of class is what students need to understand. Everything is therefore important. Hopefully all along the journey it has been cumulative, in both our evaluation and application; an exam should not be their first experience with lots of content.

Why are we so stuck on traditional paper exams? What are we afraid of?

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

Professional Educator
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