My students often care about the grade they earn in my course because they believe it will influence subsequent opportunities. And so they care about the final exam because it has a big influence on that grade for the course. And so they want to know which of the things we are learning in the course will be on that final exam. And, all too often, that’s a pretty big part of our relationship.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a coach of a team – perhaps a swimming team or a track team. Now and again we have time trials as a part of our training. But of course the time trials are a means to an end not an end in themselves. The trophies and the medals are not earned in the time trials we do at practice. It’s the races in the meets that matter.
Exams feel to me more like time trials than meets.
What if, instead of final exams for courses we had preliminary exams for courses? What if we thought about curriculum in terms of what each course wanted to build on and what it wanted to leave you with. And what if you didn’t get into the next course based on a previous grade but rather on what you still had in your knowledge and skill set when you wanted to do that next course?
Maybe we could see “next” courses as building on multiple prior courses – effectively taking the idea of pre-requisites seriously and forcing ourselves to say why something is a pre-req – what knowledge am I planning to build upon in this course. Maybe each course could come with a list of “what you should already know and be able to do” goals that we could match up with the “outcomes” of other courses.
In this scenario my students are not asking me whether something will be on the exam at the end of our class; instead they are concerned about using this class to get in shape to be ready for the entrance exam for the next courses they want to take. That would likely up their game and mine too.
And the records can start to reflect how well my course contributed to their success at getting into the next course (or, eventually, passing some sort of final milestone for a degree or credential).