Tests can be the worst part of school. They can also be what students remember forever.

A non-traditional final: Tanner (12th) defends his synthetic philosophy during his Philosophy Wars final exam

A non-traditional final: Tanner (12th) defends his synthetic philosophy during his Philosophy Wars final exam

My entire approach to assessments changed when I read an article by a forward-thinking and idealistic astronomy professor published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Anthony Crider wondered what would happen if we completely rethought final exams:

"Instead of a final exam, end the semester with one last, memorable learning experience: an epic finale.

“Final” implies the end (or death) of something; “finale” suggests the end of an artistic performance, such as the ultimate episode of a television season or series. Where a “final” implies that one is done discussing something, a “finale” is something that inspires speculative discussion beforehand and reflection afterward. What happened to the Soprano family? Will Ross and Rachel get married? Is the Island really just purgatory? Who shot J.R.?"

I followed his lead a couple of years ago and designed my first “finale” assessment, which you can read about in an early blog post here. Last year, a team-taught Arc of Justice course Jim Percoco and I led concluded with a pretty awesome community event you can check out here.

I’m only able to do these fun “finales” because I work at a school where I have total control over my curriculum and assessment design. LSG founder Deep Sran gives teachers this freedom because it enables students to learn more deeply and enduringly.

He explains:

"If you prescribe too much in front, or you make too many decisions up front, you really constrain where people can go — what they can imagine and create. So I think you have to leave room for teachers and students to see where it leads, and to do so openly and honestly. You can’t know at the outset that, by gosh, by May 20th the kids are going to be on page 700 in the book, and they will have covered all the way up to the French Revolution. It just doesn’t make any sense."

Deep’s philosophy of school leadership rests on the premise that when both teachers and students have power over what happens in the classroom, education can be beautiful and transformative. And he has seen that when we empower teachers, they use their autonomy, in turn, to empower students:

"I trust that the teachers here are qualified and know their subject areas better than me and are more curious about those subject areas than I am. I want to build the type of workplace where human beings can come in and do the work that they have prepared their whole lives to do.

The other side of teacher autonomy is student autonomy. If I give teachers the freedom to design their courses, and to end where they want to end, then they are actually able to respond to what their students are interested in and where their students are going.

So if I’m not telling the teachers where they have to end up, then the teachers don’t have to tell the students where they have to end up.The ultimate goal is that students feel free and comfortable, that they learn things that are meaningful and enduring. To do that, basically you have to create the same opportunities for the teachers."

For a better sense of how all of this comes together, here are some examples of the final assessments LSG students completed last week.

“Final Activity” versus Final Exam

To grade students on their individual progress and achievements in a course, teachers must assess students individually. But sometimes an individual assessment is an inauthentic or incomplete measure of what students were actually supposed to gain from the course — especially when collaboration and group work are central to instructional design throughout the semester.

To resolve that tension, our Proofs and Mathematical Reasoning teacher David Romero split the difference. He administered a traditional final exam to measure individual progress, and he created a “final activity” to conclude the course more authentically.

David explains the difference here:

"We had this formal assessment before our final activity, and the assessment was somewhat artificial. It tests whether students were able to write proofs by themselves. But every single time we’ve been creating these proofs, creating these ideas and reasoning, it was always a social event. Students were never isolated, writing on a piece of paper, and if they don’t get it right, it’s wrong. It was always more like, “I think this,” and then someone would come over and say, “I’m not sure how you got from here to there.” Or someone would say, “Mine looks like this. Is it equivalent? Is it the same? Is one better?”

And so I wanted to introduce some problems that would remind them that although our formal assessment was individual, the final activity illustrated the point of the course — this social exchange of ideas."

In the video above, students work through Lewis Carroll riddles, applying what they learned in David’s proofs class. He explains the assessment design:

"We chose some problems that were just silly and fun. So these riddles come from Lewis Carroll. Here is what was awesome about them: normally you can use your intuition to reason through things, but the premises in these riddles are so ridiculous, like “if you’re this type of cat you play with gorillas. If you like fish you’re not teachable.” It forces you to use formal logic because intuition is useless. This is weird for our students because in everything else we’ve done, we’ve tried to introduce this formal way of reasoning that showed how it went hand-in-hand with your intuition. But now we’ve kind of pulled the scaffold away to see if students can do formal arguments.

There is still context in the sense that you have these silly creatures and the words are familiar. I didn’t put jargon or invented words, “does the florg cause the whatever.” There is not much context, so you have to use formal reasoning, but there is enough context to give students something familiar and amusing. So in one of the videos, I’m just cracking up because it’s like the seventh time I’ve said “we choose an arbitrary cat.” It’s not intimidating. You can’t rely on the context to reason, but it’s there to make the activity fun and not intimidating."

It was important to David to give students a choice of final activity. Here is a video of another option – a theoretical tiling problem:

David explains:

"We had previously briefly discussed these tiling problems. Our group project way back when was tiling a rectangle with squares. And so I offered one final activity option with triominos, little L shapes made of squares. The prompt asked: can you tile this across different shapes? I offered them a variety of problems; we’d talked about the ham sandwich problem, and cake-cutting – how do you distribute things fairly in mathematics? I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to choose what final activity they were drawn to. So if they were working on the Lewis Carroll, it’s because they found it interesting and intriguing. And if they were working on triominos, it’s because specifically Cas wouldn’t let it go. They kept wanting to talk about these triominos and their ideas about triominos."

By creating a collaborative activity that incorporated student choice while removing some of the contextual scaffolding, David challenged kids with a memorable final activity.

The oral exam and oral defense

Research suggests that students find oral assessments more useful, more authentic, and (unsurprisingly) more intimidating. The same study indicates that kids experience oral exams as opportunities to begin thinking of themselves as professionals or masters of the content area assessed.

Few American students take oral examinations (outside of foreign language courses) because it is impractical and inefficient for a single teacher to administer one-on-one assessments for a large group of students. But even at large public schools, the International Baccalaureate program incorporates oral assessments across disciplines to assess student learning. The benefits are clear:

  • Direct, real-time feedback allows teachers to get an accurate sense of what students know
  • The dialogic nature of the exam permits the students and teacher to take the conversation in unexpected, productive directions
  • Oral examinations encourage students to build communication and problem-solving skills they will need in the workplace and in life
  • Because students are assessed orally instead of in writing, their composition skills do not cloud a teacher’s ability to assess their grasp of the course content

For these reasons, I’ve administered oral exams to my middle and high school students during all six years I’ve taught English. Below are recordings of some of my eighth graders’ exams from last week. (The final exam study guide gives an overview of what the oral assessment covers: Great Books Final Exam Study Guide).

I look forward to these exams every year because they give me the chance to understand how each of my students has made the course content personally meaningful to them. And taken together, my collection of exams over the years offers a unique record of the kids’ intellectual development.

The “oral defense” is a class event instead of a one-on-one conversation. The film Most Likely to Succeed has memorable depictions of the portfolio defense assessment administered at San Diego’s High Tech High. Students present their work, reflect on their progress, and answer challenging questions from peers and teachers.

In Philosophy Wars, we concluded the course with individual oral defenses of students’ “synthetic philosophies.” In the video clip above, Shailee (10th) presents and defends her original positions on key questions of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and human nature.

Oral assessments, whether individual or collaborative, give students the chance to interact with the course content in new and enduring ways.

Role playing assessments

Indiana Jones final activity in Spanish

Indiana Jones final activity in Spanish

For a few years now, I’ve been an admirer of journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski’s “Stakeholder Wheel” technique. The exercise requires reporters to brainstorm all the people affected by a particular issue or event at the very beginning of the investigative process. By taking on different perspectives, the writer will be able to understand the nuances and implications of the story.

I love the Stakeholder Wheel because it requires students to practice empathy as a means of understanding their world: it suggests that we cannot know all that we must if we confine ourselves to our own narrow view. 

To me, that is the purpose of role playing exercises as assessments: to show how course ideas might live in the world beyond ourselves.

The Zinn Education Project uses role play activities to help students understand complex and controversial events in history and current events. Their Dakota Access Pipeline activity, for example, prepares students to take on the roles of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, officials from the oil company building the pipeline, Iowa famers, union workers, and other stakeholders.

These exercises can be highly engaging and fun. In Vanessa Moreno’s Spanish class, kids had to produce and perform a skit that involved vocabulary usage, particular grammatical constructions, and pronunciation, among other skills. Here are a couple of short clips:

Likewise in Psychology and Literature, students reenacted the crucial dinner party scene from Virginia Woolf’s complex novel To the Lighthouse. The activity allowed kids to recognize all that the text left unsaid, and to infer or imagine what characters thought and felt.

Psychology and Literature final activity for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: reenacting the novel’s dinner party

Psychology and Literature final activity for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: reenacting the novel’s dinner party

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Fan fiction

Our Latin and Classics teacher Dr. Michael Hendry added an unexpected twist to his Shakespeare final. He asked students to cast members of our school community in the appropriate roles from the plays they had studied:

"Imagine you are casting the three plays we saw this semester, and you have to include one classmate, one LSG student who’s not in this class, and one teacher or administrator in each play. (Assume you have plenty of competent outsiders to cover the other roles.) Which would you cast, and why? Be specific about their qualifications. Also, no repeats: 9 different names."

A separate question asked students to imagine what would ensue if a character from one Shakespearean play were placed in a scene in another play.

Both of these questions offer students what is perhaps the most appealing aspect of fan fiction: the reader’s ability to shift into the author’s role. These kinds of questions give students the chance to think in new and original ways about the text and their relationship to it.

Metacognition and reflection

Jim Percoco’s Hero’s Quest exit ticket gives Max (9th) the opportunity to reflect on his learning in this semester-long history course.

Jim Percoco’s Hero’s Quest exit ticket gives Max (9th) the opportunity to reflect on his learning in this semester-long history course.

Metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” Too often, the pace of content coverage is so swift that students miss the opportunity to reflect on themselves as thinkers and learners. When kids take the time to examine their progress, their preferred learning styles, their challenges and goals, they take control of their intellectual development. Metacognitive activities can be dramatic turning points in students’ academic careers.

In Psychology in Literature, I required kids to turn in a reflection along with their final project. I asked them to explain what they’d taken away from each of our twelve course texts, and to think about how difficulty, joy, and personal importance impacted their experience of reading and learning in the course.

Here are some of the things each student took away from course texts:

  • “Your perception of the world and your memories can’t be trusted, because your brain makes incorrect assumptions and takes shortcuts. What I see and what I remember are different from what you see and what you remember.” (Hannah)
  • “There are many benefits to being perceptive about others’ thoughts or feelings, and the most perceptive people are able to make others happy.” (Layla)
  • “Repressed desires or memories can shape your entire life” (Tanner)
  • “Institutions are instruments of power and social control” (Mariam)
  • “The final idea that I will remember is the idea of struggling against the impossible. This is an idea central to humans, who will often not give up even when faced with an impossible or stacked task” (Will)
  • “Humans go through a merging state of our mind and body, in which we acquire an advanced sense of self that no other animal has” (Julianne)
  • “We don’t truly know ourselves” (Alex)

And here are some of students’ comments about their identities as learners and readers:

  • “What is most important to me is also what I enjoyed reading most.”
  • “When it comes to balancing difficulty, importance, and personal joy, it seems to me that people seem to like what they understand.”
  • “Personal importance and joy were loosely related. I really enjoyed the texts that volunteered new — sometimes crazy — ideas that explained a stage in life.”
  • “The ideas, questions, and texts that appealed to me were those that revealed something about power dynamics or the way our society functions. I just find human relationships and the way we interact with each other really interesting, these were the ideas I found most important as well. It reveals cracks and flaws within the system, and if we know how they function we can fix it.” 

These metacognitive assessments help me communicate to students that they are the architects of their own academic experience. I can’t learn anything for them. I expect and encourage them to invest in themselves as thinkers by reflecting on what they know, what they want to know, and why it matters to them.

Student ownership is central to LSG’s instructional design, and it informs a broader civic mission. Founder Deep Sran explains why it is so important to make room for student voice and student choice in our classrooms:

"The most important thing when we watch student presentations is some evidence that the student believes that’s truly theirs. They’re not going through the motions or doing it for a certain grade. The goal is that there be evidence that they did it for themselves. And again, there’s that parallel between the student and the teacher. The teacher has to feel the same way that ultimately, they did it for themselves. And that is where this has broader implications to civic life and interpersonal life and all of the things that we hope for professionally but rarely get the opportunity to do because somebody just thinks they know better. That’s why LSG is structured this way."

Learn more about our school and mission at http://www.loudounschool.org