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STUDENTS DESIGN SOME REVEALING TESTS

Letting students design their own final examinations seemed like a good idea at the time, and even now as I watch them struggle to do the equivalent of cutting the willow that will be used for their own lickin', the idea seems to have some educational benefit. Sometimes the self-imposed tests of life are the most difficult and the most rewarding. It was a small class for a change, so I thought I could take this chance.

The idea is for each student to design an individual final. The final is not a group project where all students must take the test designed by the group. However, setting the criteria for the final was something we did as a class. I must admit that I'm a bit sensitive about how much class time these maintenance activities, like writing the rules for the final, take. My bias is that most class time should be related to the discipline and not to some procedural stuff, so in the end there was not much class discussion after I told the students of this new test development opportunity.Students seemed to accept the idea and didn't need much discussion. It didn't take more than a couple minutes for the class to agree on the rules for the individual finals. This was not a Top 10 List exercise. At the end of the short discussion we had three rules:

1. The final examination must demonstrate mastery of the subject.

2. The final examination must demonstrate serious commitment to learning.

3. Only quality work will be accepted.

It was interesting that there emerged no rules about the number of pages to be read or written. There were no rules about whether the examination should be an on-going activity or something that is more of a single event. There were no rules about how it would be graded, only that it would be weighted the same as the standard final exam that is usually given in the course.

My hope was that these three guidelines would allow each student to write a final examination that would be at least as effective as the finals I write and probably much more efficient.

In the end I think that these self-imposed finals are more difficult than what I would have prepared, but I haven't confessed this yet to the students. I suppose that it is naive to think that they haven't discovered this on their own.

The variety in the examinations is interesting. One student wanted to read two additional books for the course. She will write a response, not a book report, and submit the paper for her final examination. She said that one of the books has been on her reading list for a long time, and she is grateful for the excuse to get into it. I admit it is a bit strange that the student seems to be liking an examination.

Another student is taking the more traditional research paper approach. He is reading on a particular issue and will submit the equivalent of a term paper for his final examination. He said that this is one of the few time he has been able to choose a research topic.

One student talked me into an e-mail debate. I get a message each week that I must respond to. I try to ask her hard questions in return, but I think I may have been taken on this one. I'm working pretty hard on her final. To her credit, she is sending me very thoughtful e-mail messages each week.

One student who resisted the idea a bit decided she would write the final she would give if she were the teacher. She will write questions from the reading and the class discussions. Her goal is to write a good enough final that I will use it next time I teach the course instead of making students write their own examinations. I may do just that. My initial impression is that she is working harder at writing her final that I do writing my usual final for the class.

One student asked me to write her final. "I just want to take the class, and you are paid to write the examinations, not the students." I showed this student the computer disk test question bank that comes with the text book and told her I'd be happy to let my computer write her exam but that I would probably make some modifications. After looking at some of the questions, she decided she didn't want to play trivial pursuit with the textbook publisher and will come back with a new proposal.

Her response made the point for me. School tests often seem to get in the way of real learning. We become engaged in a contest to memorize bits of information that we are not asked to understand, let alone synthesize. These traditional multiple guess tests confuse information with education. Education is not just knowing the facts well enough to recite them back before forgetting them.

I don't know that I am going to ask students to make all final examinations in the future, but the exercise has given me something to think about. It has demonstrated that students will do honest rigorous work that is self-imposed. Most are constructing an examination that will tell me more about what they have learned than the traditional examination, and as a bonus to themselves these students seem to be working harder and learning more than they would on a traditional test.