Group Discussion Exams

One thing about the setup of university literature courses has always bothered me: we spend the majority of our time discussing texts together, and — in the best classes — students develop a rapport with each other. Students learn from each other and develop their skills in verbalizing their interpretations. Then at the end of the semester, they write a paper or take an exam. Not that writing isn’t important, but it’s always struck me as odd to do one thing (talk) for 15 weeks then I grade something else (writing).

So this fall I committed myself to a different assessment: a group discussion exam. I’ve had the idea in my head for a few semesters, and the criteria aligned in my “History of the Novel” class. It was small (ten students), with a heavy reading load that meant more time reading and less time for writing. Students had several short writing assignments over the course of the semester (including my social media profile assignment), but I told them from the beginning that the final exam would be structured just like our usual class discussions.

Students were apprehensive at first, and asked about a practice exam, which I agreed was a great idea — not least because it gave me a chance to try out some choices. The exam itself (I made only minor adjustments between the practice exam and the final) was structured this way: I selected passages from each of the novels we had read, and gave each student a different passage. At the start of class students had about 15 minutes to prepare a close reading, structuring a kind of mini-argument and selecting quotations. During the exam, we’d hear a student’s close reading, and then I would ask a few questions to other students: at least one question would respond directly to the close reading, and others asked for contextual or historical points, to use the vocabulary we’d developed to talk about narrative form, or to connect to a different part of the novel or to a different novel on the syllabus. Since I was calling on students directly it wasn’t a true discussion, but it was far more interactive than a written exam or a paper.

The biggest difference between the practice exam and the final was that students selected the passages (and some of the questions) for the latter. I had planned this from the beginning of the semester, too, and students gave presentations on the last day of class. I assigned each student a different novel, and asked them to prepare a handout with three important passages, a list of major characters and themes, and a few related vocabulary terms. I chose exam passages based on students’ selections, and the presentations served as an exam review.

During the exam, each person answered only about four questions — far fewer than a written exam. But that disadvantage was balanced by a few points: they still had to be prepared to answer questions about any text, of course, and they got to hear answers to all the questions. Since some of the questions required them to respond to classmates’ answers, they were compelled to pay attention.

The biggest difference, though, and the biggest advantage, was that I could push students to revise their answers, to specify a detail, to clarify a point. I did this at all levels, pressing great students to go a bit further and helping less prepared students demonstrate what they did know. When a student floundered, I helped a bit.

I kept a separate sheet, and jotted down a few notes and a grade for each question. I weighted the close reading slightly more than the others, and took into account how students responded to each other and to my additional questions. Nobody received an F on any question — even when someone couldn’t come up with an exact answer, they were able to develop something along a related line. And that to me seems a far more important skill.

Students found the test difficult, but I think the overall response was a positive one — and it’s something I’ll do again. (I’ll revise this post if the course evaluations tell me something substantially different!)

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