Sunday, March 17, 2013

Promoting the Democractic Classroom: Having Students Write Their Own Midterm

In class midterms and finals have never been an assumed component of my syllabi.  I have always questioned whether tests allow students to demonstrate integrative knowledge and the ability to apply concepts.  Students can sink their teeth into an experiential fieldtrip or a reflective essay – tests simply measure a student’s ability to regurgitate information.  Furthermore, quantitative assessment of qualitative methodologies seems at odds, almost an oxymoron. 

But this semester I assigned a midterm in a class called “Everyday Life in Urban Settings,” a class that introduces the students to qualitative methodologies and asks them to explore, through experiential field experiences, neighborhoods in the city through the lens of theories about New York City’s changing urban landscape.  In addition to a midterm, students are also asked to keep a weekly blog where they post their responses to the readings and fieldtrips.  For their final, students are asked to create a “walking tour” of their neighborhood, or of the “cultural scene” they have chosen for their Constructive Action class. 

The fact is, students take a test more “seriously” than they do some of the more qualitative methodologies that may better represent course content.  Though the midterm was only worth 20% of their grade, all the students came to class, on time, with the readings and notes from the class semester.  All had prepared.  All stayed and worked for the majority of the 2 and ½ hour class.  What made this test “different” was that I asked students to write the midterm (and post their ideas on a Moodle Forum):  “Imagine you were writing the test for this class.  What questions would you include?”  I explained to the students that the purpose of this was two-fold: 1) it would allow them to review the material, and to identify the most important ideas; and 2) particularly good questions would become part of the midterm.  If they wrote the question, they would know the answer to the question; furthermore, if they read each other’s posts, they could prepare answers ahead of time. 

Almost all of the students posted questions by the Sunday deadline even though the class wasn’t until the following Thursday.  One wrote in all caps:  “PAY ATTENTION CLASSMATES!” as her forum post title.  She introduced her questions with an excellent reminder:  she hoped the test would be more an “overview”, a best hits of sorts, than a “boring midterm.”  Many of her questions, as well as those of others, ended up on the midterm.  The questions overall showed innovation as well as knowledge of the major concepts we had covered.  Before handing out the test, I congratulated them on the questions they came up with.  They said they really enjoyed the process, and that all tests should be like this.  It allowed them to study and reflect, to contribute to the assessment tool in real ways.  They were excited to see their questions on the test, empowering the students and helping put them in charge of their own learning. 

This represents the notion of a “democratic classroom” where “classroom engagement techniques are designed to help students take personal responsibility for their learning appreciate the value of participating in the life of a community, while also developing a sense of self-confidence, empowerment, and efficacy” (Spiezio in Jacob, Civic Engagement in Higher Education, 91)  Asking the students to write questions for the midterm provided them “with authentic opportunities to participate collectively in decision-making processes relating to the administration of a course, including syllabus construction, assessment procedures, and the specification of classroom protocols that both students and faculty are expected to observe (Spiezio, 90).  According to Spiezio, the democratic classroom is a central feature of the democratic academy.  (For more on the democratic classroom, see Kim Zpiezio, “Engaging General Education” in Barbara Jacobi’s Civic Engagement in Higher Education (2009)).

Because students were part of the test-making process, they had a higher investment in the course material.  They knew what to expect.  There were no major “surprises.”  And in my eyes, students had already passed, as they took the time to review the material and apply their inductive reasoning skills to identify the main points of the semester overall.  If in class midterms and tests do make it into my syallbi in the future, so will this democratic test-writing activity.

The students, overall, did well on the midterm.  (Interestingly, the students who posted the most thorough questions on the Moodle forum also earned the highest grades on the midterm.)  When I handed back the midterm, I asked students to reflect on the process.  They said many things that surprised me.  They said they still had to work and prepare, but that they knew what to expect, and that this helped alleviate test-taking anxieties.  They helped each other:  If one student posted a question that another did not know the answer to, they could get the answer ahead of time; in this way, the midterm promoted collaboration and students as “information sources”.  Students actually enjoyed the midterm (yes, you read that right!) because they felt they were part of the process.  I invite you to try this technique with your next midterm or quiz, and post your (and your students’) experiences with this process here.

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