swim, chem, baseball, I talk with my hands
Over the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on what is appropriate to include on the final exam for physics honors this semester. It might surprise you to know that teachers often circle back to what seem to be basic questions. As I have moved through my career I notice that it is easy to become the teacher that I saw in front of me when I was a student: to teach as I was taught provides me with an instant justification for anything that I do. So then the answer to any question about pedagogy could become: because that’s what works. But how do I really know what works?
It is within this context that I take on the question about final exams. It seems as though I catch myself in a sort of logic trap pondering what is appropriate and fair. On the one hand, the course – by its nature – is cumulative, with ideas from the first semester setting up and supporting those included in the second semester. Therefore, shouldn’t the exam cover material from both semesters of the course? Yet this view ignores the reality of being a student and creates the sort of unnecessary stress and panic that undermines whatever lofty I goal I think I am trying to achieve. Who am I kidding? My students didn’t leisurely choose this course because they have a love of science: it follows chemistry.
So let’s go back to the beginning: what is the intent of a final exam? To be honest, I have answered this question differently throughout the years. It has been the “test to end all tests,” with questions that include everything from Kinematics and Newton’s Laws to Optics and General Relativity. It has been the exam that evaluates just the final topic covered in the course, supplanting a unit exam for a given topic. I have used a variety of formats ranging from pure multiple choice (Scantron!) to those using only work-em-out questions. Heck, one year I recall that I gave a final exam that had 50 true-false questions! To be honest, that was a low point in my career in terms of testing and although I am not proud at all of the decision, it always brings me back to the question at hand: what is the goal of this test?
So let’s go with this idea: The goal of this exam is to provide an opportunity for students to show what they have learned this year in the course. Written this way, the task doesn’t seem so daunting – written this way, I can support my students in their efforts to be successful – written this way, the exam might not look like a punishment for taking a challenging class.