Monday, May 9, 2011

Timed Finals: Doing What You Already Know

(This might be rough, as I am composing the on an iPad in the airport)

My 100-level students are required to write a common final which consists of reading two pieces (one primary, one secondary) and then answer an essay question. We are allowed to discuss the primary text in class and this semester, the students can also see the secondary source ahead of time when they complete an online reading comprehension test. But they do not see the question until they get to the exam.

We spent the final class of the semester discussion strategies for successfully writing a timed-essay final exam. I usually dislike the times essay model as I don't think it's an accurate measure of a students' writing ability or thought process. In fact, I think it's hypocritical for us to teach or encourage students to take their time, write and revise, and reflect, and then start the stopwatch. But I also know that other diciplines required essay exams in a limited time frame, so it is valuable for me to at least teach them some strategies for facilitating the extremely stressful situation. My students are not confident writers in the best of circumstances, but add a time-limit and they fall apart.

I talked about planning their time, doing quick outlines, keeping a piece of paper to write down ideas as they come, and, above all, understand their weaknesses an plan accordingly. Their faces were filled with fear and nothing I said seemed to sooth their terror. (Do you sooth terror? Relieve? Assuage? Anyway, onward.) I finally realized how I would get them to relax in their exam. I told them that they were already experts at the timed essay and had practiced it often before. You know, when they write their papers for any other class at the last possible minute.

Listen, I said, other than being in your room, what's the difference between what you do in an exam and what you do at 2 am the day an essay is due. Other than the essay actually being worth more than the final. If they approach the essay final the same way they approach writing a paper at the last minute, then they'll be fine. Better than fine, because often the bar for grammar, etc, is lower in a timed final. As long as you stay on topic (no small feat), they'd knock this out of the park.

It was effective. They were visibly relieved. They believed me that they could, indeed, be successful in their exam. My job was done. We'll see how they do once I get back.


  1. When I used to have to give such exams (and I agree with you that they're not a good measure of thinking or writing skills), and was allowed to help students prepare, I would have them brainstorm a list of possible questions in relation to the readings. And then we'd do a couple of mocked up essays, with a thesis, an outline, and an idea or two for an example. We'd do this for several of the questions (all of which they thought of).

    And almost always, one or more of their questions came pretty close to the actual question. It's a matter of helping them see that they can think like a teacher and get a sense of what's likely to be on an exam, and then they can practice taking the exam.

    I think it helped my students a lot.

  2. I too do what Bardiac suggested. I don't think I've ever reminded them that they are already doing timed essays when they wait till the last minute, though. Grin!

    This has got to be better than the really easy vocab exam I gave today, which most of my students bombed. They did much better on the timed final.


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