This week:

  • I share some readers’ plans for final exams.
  • I pose a reader’s question about what the term “rigor” means to students.
  • I let you know about an upcoming Chronicle webinar I’m hosting.

Exams, Reimagined

Pandemic teaching has spurred many — though by no means all — professors to center flexibility and student engagement in their courses, a development I wrote about in this recent article.

Among the places ripe for a different approach: final exams. A couple of weeks ago, I asked how you’re approaching finals this semester. Here’s a selection of what readers shared:

  • Manisha Kaur Chase, an adjunct instructor in psychology at Chabot College, in Hayward, Calif., wrote that she’s moved away from a traditional final in her course on statistics for social sciences. “I made the switch,” she writes, “because I felt a final exam was a pretty underwhelming way to end the course.” Instead, Chase is having students complete a final reflection paper and a project in which they “pick a topic from the course or think about something through the lens of statistics and teach it to a friend or family member using a piece of educational content of their choosing (could be a PowerPoint, series of memes, podcast — whatever suits their strengths!).” The idea, Chase says, is to de-emphaize short-term memorization and instead help develop “a statistical lens through which they can view their personal and academic lives.”
  • Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shared what’s happening in the biology department, where she’s a STEM teaching professor. “My co-instructor and I (and many of the faculty teaching the large intro courses in my department) have done testing online, open-notes all semester,” Hogan writes. “We probably vary most in whether we give them a window of time to choose when to start the timed exam or whether it occurs only during the scheduled class time. We’ll all continue this for the final exam this semester.”
  • Hannah B. Higgins, a professor of art and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in to say that she had shifted a decade ago from testing students’ memorization of key details — long emphasized in her field — alongside many colleagues, given the ease of finding such information online. Still, she thought final exams were important, providing students an “opportunity to synthesize work and (hopefully) revisit course material as an exit strategy.” The pandemic changed her mind. Higgins has moved to giving students short weekly assignments that help them synthesize course material and connect it to their lives. “Cramming for exams and taking them under stress does little to facilitate actual learning,” Higgins writes. “Before Covid, I had not considered this dimension in my generally progressive attitude toward education. I now see it as fundamental.”

For more thoughts on how to handle finals, check out this recent post David Clark wrote in the Grading for Growth newsletter. Among his suggestions: “Perhaps the most humane thing any of us can do at the end of the semester is to give our students time and space to breathe, think, and reflect. Along the way, this can open the door for students to make connections and see ideas in a new light.” Clark, an associate professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University, reminds instructors to give themselves some grace in their approach to the end of the semester, too.

What ‘Rigor’ Means to Students

I’m still thinking about the ‘rigor wars’ — in which the same term signals quality to some professors and cruelty to others — that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Reading your responses to the questions I posed then has helped me see that the idea that rigor is good and important is in part a reaction to public scrutiny of higher ed’s value, especially the response to the book Academically Adrift that began a decade ago. I’m continuing to noodle around with this, so if you have thoughts to share please write:

Among the responses was an interesting question from Jerry Franz, associate program director of the GW Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health: Does the term “rigor” mean something different to students than it does to their instructors?

Franz thinks it might. When he taught at George Washington University, course evaluations included a question about rigor, Franz writes. And anecdotal conversations with his students suggested their responses were about “being challenged, but also about the amount of work required and the number of hours they spent per week on a course.”

I wonder if anyone has studied student perceptions of rigor. If you’re aware of research into this, do let me know!

Mark Your Calendars

For many instructors, the experience of teaching through the pandemic has underscored the importance of creating an inclusive classroom — whether that “room” is on campus, online, or both. This coming Wednesday, December 15, at 2 p.m. Eastern, I’ll be moderating a panel of experts talking about what’s next in inclusive teaching. You can register to watch live, or view the recording later, here. I hope you’ll bring your questions and ideas!

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— Beckie

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