Tonight, in the shower, I was thinking about tests. Yep. If I ever try to tell you that I’m not a huge nerd, remind me of the time I was in the shower thinking about the best way to do assessments in history classes.
This train of thought may have been influenced by this article, about a UCLA professor who used an enviably clever strategy in his behavioral ecology exam, making the test itself a learning experience by giving students the option to work together using all of their resources or to go it on their own . . . thus replicating many of the principles in behavioral ecology. It’s like the Stanford Prison Experiment without the horrible psychological consequences.
It’s also a consequence of having hosted a review session for my students last night. They have an essay on their final exam (which is tomorrow), and as the logistics of the class have worked out so far, they haven’t yet had to make an argument of this magnitude. I took them through the process of selecting evidence related to the prompt, then asked them to summarize some of the themes that arose from them. Then, I asked them to come up with a possible thesis statement.
They were stumped. That, or they were waiting for me just to tell them the answer, which is unusual because this group is pretty talkative and I waited for a brave student to speak for a long time. (One of my student evaluations in the past said that I “should be quicker to answer my own questions,” because the long silences can get awkward, but it always takes me a long time to gather my thoughts into coherent form, so I try to give them space to do likewise). I ended up giving them some examples of theses that would encapsulate the trends of the evidence. And they typed them diligently into their notes. And I started to think about how much our digital culture — and at times, our university culture — encourages them to be passive recipients of other peoples’ ideas and knowledge. And then I started thinking about how to change that.
And then I hatched an evil plot. Tonight, I remembered my AP history courses from high school, and their DBQ component — document-based questions. Basically, the exam would consist of five or so very short primary documents of various types (diary entries, maps, art, maybe some good old fashioned census data or something) and a question related to them. You then would have to use the documents to make an argument.
I’m wondering if it would be possible to do such a thing in a 100-level history exam. Instead of asking students to memorize various keywords, could you have them come in to the classroom with blue books, give them a couple of sheets with excerpts from primary documents, and tell them to answer an essay question using their knowledge from lectures and the documents? Or would that be an absolute circus?
I seem to recall being the only person who liked DBQs in high school, so I imagine if I did something like this I would instantly become the least popular professor in the world. On the upside, exams would not require any memorization.
What other assessment techniques can we use that encourage students to use their brains and think critically during the exam itself?