A New Kind Of Final

A New Kind Of Final August 18, 2010
As I have been reflecting more and more on how technology is changing not only how we teach, but also what we need to teach students, and train students to be able to do, I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.
And so I may in the near future give a final exam in which students have access to whatever electronic devices they wish, and are given a limited time in which to locate reliable information and use it to answer a question – with appropriate credit being given to sources and without any plagiarism, of course.
During the semester, assignments and classroom activities will focus on preparing students with these sorts of skills.

Has anyone else radically rethought the focus of their classes, or the way they do final exams, in light of changing technology? Have others been rethinking the relative value of recall versus information literacy as skills we need to instill in students? Do you think that an exam format in which you are allowed to use any sources you wish will reduce the need to be concerned about various forms of cheating and intellectual dishonesty? Are there other issues with this approach that I may have overlooked, or at least neglected to mention?


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  • Yes! I wholeheartedly applaud your efforts to rethink assessment. I think you are right to make a move away from sheer memory recall.One question I encourage teachers to ask themselves when developing assessment tools is "How is this assessment a reflection of how the student will use this material/information/skill in their future?" I strive to create finals that are similar to real-life career projects. Most students, once in their chosen job/career, will have access to information that they do not need to rely on memory for (and anything worthy of memorization will become part of their memory by sheer use of the information). Therefore, it does make more sense to allow any and all resources that a student might have future access to. The real test is if they can use the tools and resources well. I will caution you (and others) that it takes more work to write a test that is not just a repository for a student mind dump. It also usually takes more time to grade (a grading rubric is very helpful… and good to let the students see beforehand as well). I'll leave this comment with these brief remarks before I really get on my soap box. But I will close with saying you are not alone, and if you share your experiences here on your blog, perhaps you will inspire even more professors and instructors to rethink the purpose and format of their final exams.

  • Wow. That looks neat. I mean, I personally test pretty well, but I think that a test like this actually would be a lot closer to the skills students actually need. Yes, people need to have a relatively large repository of knowledge in their heads so that they can make intuitive leaps, but they would also still need it just to find the sources they need. To look for sources to support a point, students would still need to know what they're looking for.It'd also feel a lot less forced from a student POV. Being able to research quickly, accurately, and with proper attribution is one of the most essential skills a university student needs to walk away with, and this tests them on that in addition to the course material. Very cool.

  • Anonymous

    Your point about the availability of info struck home in light of student comments on tests I give in intro courses. Often these tests have a passage ID section–ID the biblical book of some verses missing their book and chapter info. Overall, students do poorly on this section (which does give me pause). Yet the complaints ask "why" such tedious recall is necessary at all, given the easy access to Bibles and info in the real world. Beyond some mental laziness, they simply take for granted the availability of data. I'll keep your proposal in mind then as I rethink those courses. If finals have multiple parts, though, and are weighted heavily in the course grade, would it be useful to "field test" your suggestion on a unit or midterm test first?Eric

  • Great question. I've actually been wrestling with the same issue in my theology classes for a while now. I started to write out a comment on how I've been working through this, but it got too long. So, I went ahead and blogged on how I'm approaching theology exams now. To summarize, I'm trying to do exactly what the first commenter suggested – focus on what I want students to do with their knowledge. So, last year I changed my exams to focus almost entirely on case studies that forced students to apply their theology to life and ministry situations. I realize this wouldn't necessarily work for all disciplines, but it went very well (not perfectly) in my theology classes.

  • I'm thinking I will have two 'research reports' the students need to write during the semester, honing their skills in finding relevant material and presenting it. Since this is a lower-level course, I think it makes more sense to focus on their grasping the "lay of the land" in the field, rather than yet trying to creatively synthesize and build on that. Perhaps the first report will get them to use all resources, in particular databases with journals and academic books, while the second will ask them to see what they can do with what is available freely online. Presumably one skill they need to acquire is how to discern reliable information and credible sources even when they find themselves in the future without access to the academic databases that universities provide them with.

  • James – I do a version of what you describe for the Freshman Business Experience. I've done it for a few years, now. Short explanation:1. In-class lecture that explains how to use certain key resources (focus on Business LibGuides, business databases, and business source complete)2. Lecture two (second class) is an in-class quiz deployed via Blackboard. Students get to use their own laptops and all of the library resources. They have to use all available resources to answer the questions. "Do" rather than pointless memorization!The goal here is to force them learn how to use quality resources. I don't care if they can memorize that we have 150 databases, the number of books the library holds, etc. What is more important in this age of information overload, is that they pick up some basic skills and strategies for finding and evaluating information. Related: The paper that I recently co-authored took into account that the AC203 students we were teaching/studying, had prior MG101 training. We need to get a bigger sample of the MG101 folks (more data collection this semester), however, preliminary results indicate that what myself and Teresa Williams have done in class with business faculty, does make a difference in a manner that's statistically significant. When it's finally published I'll send you a copy. It will also eventually make it way to my Selected Works page. The paper:Kelly, A. S., Williams, T. D., Matthies, B. and J. Burdeane Orris. Forthcoming. Improving financial information literacy in introduction to financial accounting. Journal of Learning in Higher Education.

  • You might want to take a look at the IL standards. We drew heavily on these.

  • Last comment I promise!I used to conduct a source evaluation workshop for the MG101ers. However, it became too much to handle for 7 sections. I refined it since this this publication and ultimately retired it. You could use my "CRITIC" acronym, modify it, or develop your own. (I seem to recall maybe Sagan creating a similar laundry list for evaluation) The point is to give beginning students a basic "baloney detection kit". Most of our incoming students have never had to do this sort of thing. So, at the lower levels, basic lists like these are of use. The activity:1. Pre-assign the evaluation method as reading. That way when you do the activity at least one person from each group will have read the method. 2. Pre-select five sources of information that relate to a topic your class is studying. Make sure one source is credible, one is not, and pick at least one "gray area" source that could go either way. 3. Break the students into "teams", give them the CRITIC and their source. They get a certain amount of time in class to evaluate the source using the method. I used to make each team write out their findings on jumbo note sheets. Now with all the technology, you probably could do it on a blog or wiki!4. At the end of class each team has to report back their findings. They get to use the note sheet (or your new technology) as their visual aid. This is where the fun happens. The hard part about this activity is that you have to be able to think on the fly because you never know what a given team will do with a source. Better still, besides using the method, the entire class sees it in action at least five times. I'd be happy to meet if you are interested in using any of this. In fact, I'd love to see a new educator take it in a totally different direction!-B

  • Brad, thanks for sharing so many helpful links and greaat ideas!