When I first started teaching, incorporating writing into my classes was not a focus. The idea of grading more than one paper/class in a semester was daunting. But in the last year and a half or so I have come to realize that if I’m not giving my students multiple opportunities to write within the discipline, than I am not preparing them for their futures.
All too often we hear complaints about how poorly students write, but it seems like part of the problem is that we are expecting to students to carry forward skills they learn in their freshman composition classes without giving them much of a chance to practice and develop over the course of a semester, and eventually their four years here, if all we do it assign a literature review paper in each class. We have to be honest with ourselves, students will not remember the feedback they get on their writing if they don't have to use until the next semester or the next research paper. Because of that I have taken up my fair share of writing instruction by requiring several different kinds of writing assignments in my classes from reflections, application assignments, and online discussions to today’s topic, the essay exam.
I started doing essay exams pretty early on but only in the last year or two made writing an important component of those exams. The exams structures and grading components change as student’s advance, but the idea remains the same.
In my 100-level courses, students work on a take-home essay-style “Exam”. They answer five learning objective questions, three advanced application questions, and three self-reflection questions (I will be describing this in more detail in an upcoming post). They have from the beginning of the unit until the end, about three or four weeks, to complete it and could work on it as the material is learned. I also include an in-class workday for students to ask questions in lieu of sitting and taking a traditional exam. In terms of writing, I look for actual paragraphs (with topic sentences, evidence, conclusions, and transitions) rather than collections of sentences; I ask for citations for every answer; I require that students don’t quote. The first one or two are very difficult for students to wrap their heads around because they are pretty different as exams go. I give some leeway in grading and provide extensive individual feedback. Over the course of the semester, the students’ scores steadily improve as they incorporate the feedback and get more practice.
In my 300-level Research Methods course, exams are pretty similar in that there are five learning objective based, essay like questions, although these are usually multi-part. In this course students have more freedom which makes the task harder because there is a significant amount of critical thinking; the "right" answers are not cut-and-dry, but depend on the quality of the explanation and evidence provided. I either provide options for specific cases or provide a short list of topics that they can apply to their questions. For example, students learn about cultural competency and on an exam have the option to explain how cultural competency applies to doing research on body cameras for police officers, eating disorders in adolescents, or interleaving in the classroom. When I select the topical options I select a variety that reflects the student’s majors or future careers. The exam is also more advanced than in my 100-level classes because students have less time to complete them. I typically give 48 to 72 hours to complete the exams. One of those days we have an out-of-class workday so I can meet with students individually in my office to review their exams or answer questions. In terms of writing, I continue to expect the same kinds of things as my 100-level students (paragraphs, transitions, citations, clarity) but add a minimum word count. I also assign a higher proportion of the points to writing. Again, I give more feedback earlier in the semester* with a little more leeway, but as they improve hold them to high standards.
Do you do grade for writing on essay exams? How are they structured?
Written by Ciara Kidder
*Which coincidentally is when we have the most time to give good feedback before our other duties and grading gets too crazy!