The Examined Life

It can’t be time for exams, already? Sure, exam period won’t start until the second week of December, but I have to get the exams to the secretary by tomorrow so they can be duplicated and ready for the big day(s). So that meant a large part of today was spent preparing final exams for three of my four courses.

I am always of two minds when it comes to preparing exams. Are they going to be too easy? Should I demand more? Some of the simplest questions are the most devilish, I realize.

The students in my Ancient Near Eastern course who have to deal with the fiendish “fill-in-the-blank” questions would attest to that. Even though that section counts for only about a quarter of the exam marks, it provokes much anxiety. But I have to admit that it’s very easy to mark (and when you have a class of 70-100 students, anything that reduces marking time seems attractive). And I believe there’s a certain value in being able to “get” individuals, events or ideas that have been hammered into their heads from day one. (And, how hard can it be when the said questions are all taken, with only minor editing for length, from their main textbook?)

I use map questions in some of my courses where the students not only have to correctly locate the cities in question on a map but they also have to discuss their historical significance. I started these questions when I realized that students couldn’t locate major landmasses or locations. Talking about the vulnerability of the late medieval papacy becomes difficult when students don’t realize that France and Italy are, like, just a few Alpine passes apart (”So that’s why the popes were kind of worried about the French kings!”). So, in the course manual at the start of term they get a sample map and list of cities they’ll need to know. How hard can it be, particularly when they get a choice of cities (2 of 4, 3 of 6) on the midterm or final?

Hard, I know. And I haven’t even gotten to the essay questions or short identifications which are the heart of most of my exam strategies. I have had great success with a document analysis essay question that figures in most of my senior seminar exams (provide a page or less of a primary source text from the period under study and ask for their analysis of the same).

I wonder if I’m getting into a rut, though. Given that our department doesn’t do “multiple choice” questions, what other ideas are out there for written exams?

2 Responses to “The Examined Life”

  1. Barb Says:

    I often use the short-id type of question. I give a list of 8 or 10 terms (names, -isms, events, etc.) that have been thoroughly discussed in class. Students pick 5 or 7, and have to explain who/what, when, where, and how or why s/he or it was historically significant. It is amazing, and frustrating, how few students get full points for these, despite being given a list of possible terms a week before the exam. I even tell them to answer in terms of who, what, when, where, how, and why, but almost all of them don’t do how or why. For a final, it’s usually 5 or 8, worth 10 points each (easy to grade), then they pick one of three essays for the other 50 points.

  2. Kate Says:

    In addition to fill-in-the-blank and short answer, I use matching items and have been known to have more than one “set” of the items on a given test. I tell the students in advance what course content the matching items will pertain to. I have found that with a little creativity, the matching items can be challenging and as telling of what a student knows as short answer questions. An added bonus is that it doesn’t take long to grade them, even in large classes.