Dan Meyer started a discussion on Twitter recently about the unnecessary stress that final exams cause for students at the end of the year, questioning how much insight they really give into student learning. It’s been a helpful reminder that while I definitely agree that high-stakes final exams are terrible, I really don’t have a great system yet for wrapping up the year.
We certainly don't want students feeling like this:
It seems challenging to balance the goal of ending the year with celebration and anticipation of more learning, while also gaining information about retention and content synthesis. I want students to end the year on a high note, feeling positive about their progress and provided with the opportunity to dig deeply into a particular topic, but it would also be great to be able to identify topics from the entire year that would benefit from review and work with them to do that.
In some ideal universe where time doesn't exist and Firefly is still on the air, I would be able to do both: a meaty project in which students can shine and review and an assessment of all of the things. However, even given this bounty of time, I'm not sure that a timed, paper and pencil, silent, individual assessment would really promote the most learning and information for me and students.
So I spent a bunch time the last few weeks reading up on various ideas and here is my current compilation.
- A group whiteboard assessment that looks at problem solving and tying together big concepts from the year, something like what @AlexOverwijk does with his classes:
S “Because of the low stress in this testing environment it reassures me that I know stuff, lets me know what I need to focus on tonight before the individual test, and really just increases my confidence.”
Me”Glad you feel that way.” pic.twitter.com/fPFx1uD7cf
- An annotated portfolio of work throughout the term, which would require students to find evidence of learning for previous topics, identify important connections, revise work, and identify topics that need further attention themselves. I really like this option as it puts the student in the driver's seat. However, this would be fairly time-consuming and likely need students to have been tracking their work throughout the semester. It's something I'm strongly considering for next year. If you do this, I'd love more information - directions, rubrics, advice for someone who wants to try it. How do you make this work in large classes?
- An oral final exam in which each student has a one-on-one interview and discusses their process and reasoning for one or two problems, which @JadeMohrWhite proposed:
My last few yrs in the classroom I did oral finals and loved it. I spent time with each individ S and got to have a math convo with them about what they had learned over the year. They explained reasoning & it wasn’t about right or wrong but the process.— Jade White (@JadeMohrWhite) May 22, 2018
This seems great for digging deep into mathematical practices and student thinking, but would only give limited content knowledge information due to time constraints. Building in class time for every student to have a 20 minute interview or so also seems a bit daunting in the end-of-year crunch, but could potentially complement a final project or portfolio assignment, during which students are working relatively independently.
- Final individual project and group presentation. This is the model I'm trying this year in one of my classes. Students selected a topic of personal interest to them that is related to the content in the course and did research and Math work related to this topic. They were then placed into groups based on some possible common threads between projects and created a presentation that highlighted their individual work AND the connections between them, as well as how what they learned related to their Math course this year. Detailed directions are here.
I like how positive and forward-looking the projects have been this year - it does feel like a celebration and memorable opportunity for students to shine. However, because projects are typically looking at a single topic in a great deal of depth, this way of ending the year misses out on the whole cumulative, wrapping everything up feeling that I like to have.
- Bring back the final exam, but have it be extremely low stakes by focusing on retention, connections, and structured so that it can only help a student's grade, not hurt it. This is how I've done final exams before - as a final opportunity for a student to show understanding of a topic from a previous unit and a place to look at cumulative retention and synthesis. It's efficient and serves that purpose well, but isn't the kind of experience I want students to take away with them as their last memory of my class, so if I brought it back, I would definitely want to pair it with one of the above ideas.
- Edited to add:
Take-home final exams, as described by @benjamin_leis below, seem like another way to get more comprehensive information about content knowledge in a less-stressful setting. I like the idea of removing time pressure from the equation and letting students assess in a more comfortable and familiar setting where they can take breaks and dig deeper into problems. Again, because this more closely replicates the ways that students do math in my class during the year, it should be a better assessment of what they know. I also think questions on a take-home final should be more interesting and less routine than what I would ask on an in-class timed assessment.