And on the Last Day of Class, We'll Play Games

Why I decided to ditch the blue books for an 'epic' final exam

Jamie McCaffrey / Creative Commons

January 18, 2016

After a rewarding semester teaching a survey course on the early history of Christianity ("Paul to Luther"), I received a frantic email a few days before the final class of the semester. "The Council of Lyon is in three days," wrote my anxious student, "and Thomas Aquinas hasn’t shown up to any of our team meetings!" Adroitly judging the significance of the "Angelic Doctor," the student asked me whether this would adversely affect the team’s grade. It was gratifying to see A.D. 1274 repeating itself in such uncanny semblance, but it was also a harsh reminder that building a better final "exam" took a little more work, and a little more risk, than I’d anticipated.

Rewind five months. It was the end of summer (2015, not 1274) — that moment in time when preparing the syllabus for a fall class is still a labor of love, before the long grind sets in. I had been browsing Advice articles on The Chronicle (as you are now) and musing over some teaching strategies I could implement for the fall.

Conveying 1,500 years of civilization to 30 students in only 25 class sessions was a task that did not leave much room for special gimmicks or "extra mile" pedagogy. I’m friendly and informal in class; I like to build relationships with students to create a comfortable, conversational learning atmosphere. My former students generally remember me and wave in the hallway.

But remembering me and remembering my course material are two different things. I wanted to bridge the gap between being "the fun professor" and being "the course they’ll always remember."

I wanted to bridge the gap between being 'the fun professor' and being 'the course they'll always remember.'
That was when I came across Anthony Crider’s article, "Final Exams or Epic Finales." Crider was distressed to see students ending a several-months-long relationship on a simple goodbye, turning in their final, and putting the course behind them. Those experiences led him to question the structure of his course, and develop an assessment that used the traditional exam day for something interactive, mind-bending, memorable, and fun.

To be sure, the "epic finales" he described were for a course on extraterrestrial intelligence and another on dystopian literature. But Crider asserted that the notion of an unusual final was not limited to "oddball" classes. Could my course on early and medieval Christianity fit the bill?

I wanted a final exam that would encourage broad preparation, teamwork, and fast thinking. I also wanted something awesome that would still actually test their historical knowledge. In Crider’s "finale," students pondered a dark monolith and communed with live chickens. He mentions another professor in his article, Nick Proctor, who converted his classroom into a dystopian processing facility and forced students to socially engineer their grades. Each exercise was like a combination between a parlor game and a deep philosophical brainstorm. That was exactly what I was looking for, but how to justify such "playtime" in a college context?

While I am a great lover of games, I have never been fully convinced by proponents of gamification for everything from "Math Blaster" to "Chore Wars" (a role-playing game that supposedly tricks your lazy children or roommates into doing the dishes). Their methods rest on the false assumption that we must dangle meaningless micro-incentives in front of people to make them work and learn. We cannot have so quickly forgotten that students in a 19th-century German gymnasium or British grammar school could be called on to stand and recite long lists of memorized facts, and sit for long lectures with assiduous note-taking and nightly review — all unincentivized. If the promise of cultivating virtues (or at least cultivating a résumé) does not exercise today’s undergraduates to do well, why would an imaginary point system?

But that is not at all what Crider is playing at. His assessments — though still a form of gamification — are only games in the sense that they involve high levels of collaboration, fast-paced critical thinking, storytelling, and good-natured competition. What those elements have in common: (A) They’re all essential to a memorable learning experience, and (B) they’re all conspicuously absent from a traditional multiple-choice or essay final.

Not wanting to be too adventurous my first time out, I opted for a series of role-playing debates that would force students to put themselves in the shoes of Christians centuries earlier. To get students ready for a somewhat unfamiliar undertaking, I added several nonstandard assignments to my syllabus: designing a cathedral for the early University of Oxford, pronouncing an anathema against a 2nd-century heretic, writing a legal brief for a defendant on the basis of Justinian’s Codex, and others. As one student told me, "I would much rather do this than just memorize a list of key terms and write improvised answers in a blue book."

I wanted my final to build on those interactive assignments. But how to organize an activity that would involve 30 students in one two-hour collaborative enterprise?

That was a logistical problem I mulled over for some time. I wanted to hear from my students and give them a chance to show me what they had learned about topics like church and state, monasticism, or Christianization. It had to be difficult enough, and, of course, it had to be fun. Otherwise what was the point? But debates require time, and I only had two hours to spare on the day of the final. I briefly considered dedicating class days to the exercise before the final-exam week, but given the breadth of the course topic, I couldn’t spare a single session (two had already disappeared during Pope Francis’ September visit to our campus).

So whatever my epic finale was going to be, it would have to test each student — and not just for some brief speech. To accomplish this, I created a set of team scenarios that would require plenty of preparation and cooperation, and divided the students into seven teams. They would participate in one of three separate scenarios: a 10th-century monastic chartering, a 12th-century heresy trial, and a 13th-century ecumenical council. Each team represented a distinct faction — a bishop’s delegation from Constantinople or a committee of Paris inquisitors. "This method required a more focused study," one student noted, and another pointed out that "throughout the preparation I learned a lot about my own subject and the opposing side as well."

We ran into a few problems: As mentioned, some students with important team roles failed to show up for team meetings. Other students were terrified of public speaking or ran into trouble thinking on their feet. There were the inevitable mix-ups due to missed instructions that threatened to derail the exercise. Speaking time was short, and there was almost no room for error. Teams had to prepare thoroughly beforehand, probably as much as they would have for a standard blue-book final.

The time they spent preparing outside of class gave students a chance to identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn from each other. To make grading fair, each student received an individual grade and a team grade, which were averaged together to constitute their final grade. I evaluated each student and team right there on the day of the final, mercifully eliminating the long hours I usually spend grading a stack of blue books.

The results and feedback were unparalleled (prompting me to share the experience). Most students performed admirably, earning high grades both individually and by team. Surveying all 30 students afterward, I received only a handful of comments that were not overwhelmingly positive. The negative comments were largely constructive and targeted at raising the stakes or difficulty level — e.g., "Don’t allow speaking notes" and "have the audience vote on the winner."

The many positive comments confirmed my hypothesis about increased student learning and engagement:

  • "It made me think harder and connected me with historical figures in a personal way."
  • "It definitely challenged all of us to go in depth with our research."
  • "It created a great element of collaboration and team work while individually gaining much knowledge on the subject that was given to us."
  • "It allowed me to work closely with people from different majors and perspectives."

In short, it was a memorable experience for most students, and I plan to repeat it until the creative bug compels me to try something new. For those thinking about experimenting with your own epic finale, I would like to leave you with five tips from my experience.

1. Preparation is everything. You will need a fully sketched plan, a backup plan, and a fail-safe for your backup plan. Your epic finale will be happening in real time. Have you overlooked something? Play-test and consider everything that could go wrong. What if a student with an important role doesn’t show up? Find multiple ways to contact students and make your announcements on several class days in case of absentees. Provide unambiguous instructions and be clear with students that they should take the "finale" just as seriously as they would take a final exam.

2. Tailor the finale to your students’ needs and interests. Early on in my courses, I always assign students a brief personal essay outlining their background in the subject matter, interest in the class, and personal learning goals. I used their answers in designing the final. I also waited until November to finalize all the details of the exam, which enabled me to center it around topics in which my students had demonstrated the most interest. For example, this class had been fascinated by the dietary and sexual practices of medieval Cathars, so I made sure to cover heresy in the finale. Meeting your students halfway is essential to good teaching, so it will obviously be an indispensable part of planning your finale.

3. Communicate the parameters clearly. Remember that you are probably springing something brand new on your students. If you are going to weight this assessment with any significant grade value at all, fairness dictates that you explain very thoroughly what’s going on. Crider himself admits that he does not weight his finales heavily for this very reason. I, on the other hand, preferred to use the grade to motivate students to take the exercise seriously, so I had to do my part in helping them along. I announced in class that I would be extra-available by email for any questions and concerns in the week leading up to the finale, and tried to respond to emails within a few hours. I also devoted half a class session to explaining the exercise in detail and providing helpful study tips.

4. Go back to high school. You may struggle to come up with a creative finale, and unfortunately, there aren’t too many resources available to help. Crider warns that you will not find a cut-and-paste finale in a textbook; it must be "handcrafted." Such exercises have yet to achieve broad acceptance in academe, so you can’t draw on any standard materials. High school is a different story; projects like these are a staple of the high-school classroom. If you’re not the creative type, don’t be too proud to take some general ideas from a lower-level curriculum and adapt them for the difficulty level of your class.

5. Ask for advice. Let’s be honest. Ending your class in a different way from your peers and colleagues means taking a risk. Students might complain that they were tested unfairly, and you may have to defend your decision to go against the grain. You are going to want some written feedback from your students, mostly to hone your finale for next year, but also to have on hand for tenure review or future job interviews.

I teach in a school of theology. I am not naïve about my students’ interest in my field. Though mine is a religious (some would even say deeply religious) institution, undergraduates here are no more likely to thrill at the notion of a church-history class than those at the local state university. A majority of our students identify as Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t mean they are all eager theology majors. In fact, a survey I gave in my own class on the first day made clear that less than a fourth of them were in any way knowledgeable about basic theology or church history. My job (like yours, no doubt) is no cakewalk.

That was enough of a reason for me to infuse some broader interest into my course. I may have betrayed my 19th-century German and British forbears by bastardizing collegiate pedagogy with energy and fun. However, faculty and students in the 21st century face different challenges and distractions. I felt that I owed my students, if not some song and dance to pry their attention away from phones and laptops, then at least a chance to see how the material of a religion course could be interesting and relevant on its own merits.

As the game-design guru Ron Edwards (probably) said, "games imitate life." If I wanted academic content to come down to earth and apply to my students’ lives, playing games seemed the best way to do it. Maybe it’s time for you to give it a try, too.


Andrew Jacob Cuff is a teaching fellow in theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America.

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