[dropcap]A[/dropcap] few years ago, a student came to see me because she was having trouble passing the Praxis exam, which was delaying her student teaching and her ultimate career goal. She had taken the exam three times and had met with another professor to get help, but nothing was working. During our conversation, out of frustration, she said something to the effect of, “I’ve used flash cards all my life, and they’ve worked, but now they’re not.” My immediate thought was, “We have failed her.” She had taken a class with me, and, while she had not done all that well, she had certainly passed. And she did so using flash cards.
I had already been unhappy with the exams I gave, as they never seemed to measure what I thought was truly important. I teach literature and I’ve always tried to focus on interpretation, not a regurgitation of names or dates or terms. I did give students quotations from the literature we read and asked them to identify the author and the work (I suppose I did focus on facts a bit, it seems), and then I had them write a short answer that shared their thinking about why that passage was important. I realized I was less concerned with their ability to interpret literature and more interested in whether they could tell me what we talked about in class. Even so, one student who had struggled on the first exam in a World Literature survey used flash cards for the rest of the semester, writing down every quote we discussed in class, then essentially memorizing a response for each passage. That’s an impressive intellectual feat, but not the one that mattered to me. [perfectpullquote align="right" bordertop="false" size="22"] Before I stopped giving exams I had to figure out what my students were going to do with the knowledge and/or skills I hoped they’d take away from my class.
I decided to stop giving exams. In order to do so, though, I had to think about what was truly important to me. That meant figuring out what my students were going to do with the knowledge and/or skills I hoped they’d take away from my class. I ultimately realized that I had two primary goals for the students in my classes, whether they were core or major courses. First, I wanted students to enjoy reading literature, even works that were initially foreign to them in some way, whether through cultural differences or innovations in forms and techniques. Rather than students only knowing traditional forms, such as Shakespearean sonnets, I wanted them to see ghazal
s and contemporary free verse. My hope was that students would still be interested in reading new kinds of literature 10 and 20 years after they graduate. Second, I wanted students to be able to read and interpret such literature. The two goals are clearly related, as they can’t enjoy literature unless they can read and interpret it on their own.
With those two goals in mind, I revamped my classes significantly. They’re no longer a methodical march through chronology, as I’m not particularly concerned that my students can or cannot place a work of literature in a broader literary movement. Instead, I structure my classes by theme, as I want students to see how literature speaks to ideas that we continue to struggle with today: self-identity, justice, religion, and race. If they see that literature matters to their lives, they are more likely to find it worthwhile and interesting long after they graduate.
Many professors claim, as I once did, that their field essentially requires them to give exams, pointing out that there is a core set of knowledge students simply must know in order to succeed. I agree. I want my health care providers, for example, to have the knowledge they need to care for me, but exams might not be the only way to encourage students to learn material. I recently heard an interview with a medical school professor who changed the way he assessed students’ learning. Rather than formal readings and exams, he simply comes to class and describes symptoms; the students then ask him questions to try to determine a diagnosis and possible treatment. Through that process, they learn terms and techniques they need to become successful doctors. The odds of retaining what they learn increase since they are learning in context, not writing down lecture notes that they will give back on an exam.
Professors in many disciplines could take a similar approach. Business professors could use case studies, as could law professors. Psychology and sociology professors could give the students hands-on experience designing research studies. Communications professors could replicate the work their students will do, whether that’s writing press releases or making short films. Although not every professor or every discipline could do away with exams completely, I believe that thinking about what we truly want students to be able to do will lead us to more creative assignments and means of assessment. Overall, professors from across the university could and should find more ways to give students hands-on experience that mirrors what they will do in those fields.
That’s the approach I took with my literature classes. I began using a larger number of short writing assignments to give students more practice interpreting texts on their own. My focus is not on their writing skills, although I certainly provide some feedback there, which has a side benefit of making them better writers, quite often. Instead, it’s on allowing them to see that they can read works of literature in interesting ways without my having to tell them what those works mean
, as if there is only one meaning. Since they write those papers before coming to class, they can then see how their interpretations measure up with our discussion—teaching them that their first interpretation might not be what they end up thinking, or some interpretations can clearly miss the mark. I use these works, too, as a way to reinforce knowledge over the course of the semester. In my World Literature class, for example, students have to connect works that come up later in the course to those we’ve discussed earlier in the semester. Thus, they can’t write about Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
and forget about it, as they will have several subsequent short essay assignments where they have to refer to earlier works. This approach reminds students that these readings are relevant and important throughout the semester.
We use the final exam slot for students to do recitations. This assignment counters what I think about tests. I make students memorize a passage of their choosing from anything we’ve read that semester. The passage is roughly 150 or 200 words, depending whether it’s a lower- or higher-level course. What justifies this assignment is that I want students to take away at least a small piece of the course, something they can keep with them. I admit that they’ll forget most of the passage rather quickly, but I believe that a small portion of it will stay with them for longer than they imagine. It also shows them that what we read can be personally meaningful. One student, an admittedly ardent feminist, knew she’d be reciting something from A Room of One’s Own
as soon as we read part of it, while a couple who were engaged to wed each recited half of Neruda’s “Tonight I Will Write the Saddest Lines.”
Most students do not enjoy standing in front of the class and reciting something from memory, but they always love the discussion afterward when we get into why they chose their passages. In fact, many students say they would have rather taken an exam than do the recitation; the same is true for the writing assignments I give them. They know that they are skilled at learning what can be written on flash cards and regurgitated on tests. I want to push them beyond that type of thinking, to have them interpret literature on their own, to show them they have ideas of their own about that literature and the world, and to give them the confidence to stand up and make a passage of literature their own.
I’m still adjusting my assignments and trying to evaluate what’s working and what’s not, but, after two years of not assigning any exams, I’m generally happy with the change. In my most recent World Literature course, a student wrote on the course evaluations, “This class made me remember how much I love reading. It was great to know we weren’t just learning to pass a test. For the first time in recent memory, I was actively participating and doing the work and learning because I was genuinely interested and I wanted to learn just for my personal benefit, not to get an A.” If I can see more comments like this one, I’ll know I’m on the right track.
Kevin Brown is a professor of English at Lee University (Cleveland, Tenn.). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.