Examining the Moment

Suppose you are trying to teach your students to compose themselves in the manner I’ve been suggesting over the previous three posts. And suppose you’re not just trying to teach them to write in general, but you are trying to impart knowledge to them as well. You may be teaching them anything from organization theory to Elizabethan drama, and along the way you’ve been assigning essays that, you tell them, should consist of a series of coherent prose paragraphs that together present an argument. You’ve been encouraging them to think of a paragraph as a composition of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words — about half a page — that says one thing they know (about the content of the course, of course) and supports, elaborates, or defends it for the purpose of discussing it with another knowledgeable person. That person, you have been telling them, is best thought of as a fellow student in your class, a peer. You and your students are, in this sense, now on “the same page”.

In this post, I will suggest a form of examination that I consider essentially ideal, even if we had no worries about plagiarism or artifical intelligence, but one that the increasingly sophisticated technologies in this area now make virtually necessary. That is, I’m hopeful that the fact that the take-home assignment no longer constitutes a serious test of the student’s knowledge of a subject or ability to write about it will force us to adopt a form of testing that was always much more serious. In fact, it’s one that I suggested a few years ago might go some way towards reducing the problem of impostor syndrome later on in an academic career. If done right, the competent student will literally feel like they have passed through an impostor filter. I will desribe the exam here and then discuss it in greater detail in a later post.

I’m assuming that the exam comes at the end of a one-semester course. You will have taught the course content as you think best and, like I say, encouraged them to write in orderly writing moments as I suggest. You will also have told them about the structure of the final exam, which will have a significant influence on their final grade. The exam that I will now describe will hopefully have impressed the importance of training on them; they will want to have their minds and their prose “in good shape” to be able to perform the task that is coming.

The exam has two parts.

The first part of the exam is a 3-hour, 1000-word (max.) invigilated essay. Under controlled exam conditions, using only materials and equipment you provide to them, and giving them no connnection to the internet or each other, the students are to respond to a prompt that you give them. You may give them three prompts and let them choose one, but you should not let them write about anything they want. They need to show you that they can quickly recognize what you are asking them to do (which should of course be something that is reasonable to ask of a student that has dutifully followed your class). Then, given those three hours they should be able to compose at least five coherent paragraphs that consititutes an intelligent, knowledgeable response to your prompt.

The second part of the exam is a 20-minute oral examination based on the submitted essay. You might be able to examine ten to fifteen students in a day in the manner I propose, depending on your stamina. Each session begins with you taking ten minutes to read the 3-page essay the student has written. They then enter the room and you discuss it with them for twenty minutes. That’s it. You make some notes, score them, and assign grades on the basis of your notes and scores when you’ve been through all the students. If you’re allowed to do so, I suggest giving the grades on a curve. More on this in the next post.

The test will work best with as little time as possible between the written and oral exams. You can expect students to spend the time between them reading up on the material they will be discussing, but you don’t want the whole oral exam to consist of them correcting themselves on matters they have since learned more about (and will forget again in due course). With a class of twenty-students you can get through this over two or three days. Out of fairness you don’t want some students to have a lot more time to prepare for the oral exam than others.

But there’s a simpler and less exhausting way through this, actually. If you’re willing to write a lot of prompts, you can examine an arbitrary amount of students in an arbitrary amount of days, spread out over an abitrarily long period. Simply split the students into groups of 8, assign them exam dates where their group writes in the morning and is then examined orally after lunch (between, say, 13:00 and 17:00). You read eight essays and have eight more or less engaging conversations with your students on some number of afternoons during the exam period.

Like I say, I will offer some reflections on this in a later post. I’m sure the idea itself provokes reactions, positive and negative, in many of my readers. I would love to hear about them in the comments.

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