The academic year is winding down at schools and colleges, and some instructors are rethinking their usual approach to final exams to fit this unprecedented time.
At the North Penn School District, in Pennsylvania, final exams now count for no more than 10 percent of student grades instead of the usual 16 percent, according to an article in the student newspaper there.
Earlier in the pandemic, one professor at Chapman University decided to replace the traditional final with a community-service project infused with academics. The professor, Stephanie Bailey, asked students in her introductory physics course to pair up with a senior in a local nursing home who was stuck in quarantine. The students were tasked with teaching physics concepts they’d learned to their elderly conversation partners.
At Elon University, meanwhile, astrophysics professor Anthony Crider has been trying to make his final exams more experiential. He felt that spending the final three hours of the semester on a quiet written exam missed the opportunity. “One of the most depressing things that happened when I was teaching regular astronomy was I’d have a great semester, and I’d be giving a multiple choice exam in class, and students that I really grew to care about would walk out of the class [as they finished] and sort of whisper, ‘goodbye.’ And that’s the last I’d ever see of them,” he says. “That just seemed like a terrible way to end the semester.”
He argues for what he calls “epic finales” instead of final exams. “You could do something much more engaging, or boisterous or creative.”
He said he has nothing against traditional tests, but he doesn’t think that should be the last three hours that instructors spend with their students.
For one of his past “epic finales,” Crider created a statue of a mysterious monolith that he left in the middle of the classroom, with no explanation. He had left some clues, related to class material, that students then had to piece together to solve the puzzle of the statue’s meaning.
But this semester, Crider found himself toning down his usual approach, on the belief that students were “tired of surprises.” Instead, for his 15-person course in Galactic Astronomy, he set up optional evening sessions on astrophotography, and for each session that students attended, they were allowed to take one fewer section of a five-section exam. The exam was a traditional one, with no monoliths or other riddles.
During the three-hour exam, Crider set up two lawn chairs outside, and asked students to sit with him for about 10 minutes as they came out of the test and just chat with him about what they got out of the semester and about their plans for the summer. Because the length of the exam ended up being different for each student, and there were just 15 students in the class, he got a few minutes of quality time with everyone. And since it was outside, they even got to take off their masks, and Crider said in most cases it was the first time he’d seen these students without their masks.
And he did have one small surprise. He gave everyone a choice of candy, either a Milky Way, a Milky Way Dark, or a Starburst. It’s an astronomy class after all.
“That was the right way to spend that last three hours,” Crider told me.
Dive into the issue in this encore episode of the EdSurge Podcast, with an update on what’s changed as the pandemic lets up. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.