It's the Shakespeare final.
And I just finished the stack I brought to grade now, and had to check some stuff on the computer. And now, this, blogging.
My finals are in three parts, an essay section (one essay, about at least three plays, from before and after the midterm), a short ID/concepts section, and a section writing about specific passages.
My goal for my final is that a student who's studied, participated in discussion, taken notes, and so on, should be able to demonstrate that they've learned a lot. A student who hasn't bothered to do any of that should fail miserably. And in between, well, in between.
So, the IDs and concepts? About a week before the exam, we make a huge list on the board. And I try to choose from the list mostly. (And there's always some choice on the exam, so if someone just doesn't remember one thing, there's something else to write about.)
The passages? They're all passages we've worked through in class discussion. So someone who's been in class, active in discussion should have good notes. The key then is to review and study well. Again, there's some choice so if they just can't remember one, they can do another.
And the essay questions? We take some time as finals approach to talk about potential essay questions. Then I make up a set of five or six potential essay questions. And then we talk about them, brainstorm, and they get to choose three potential essay questions. For the exam itself, I'll choose two from those three, and they'll choose one to write on. That means they have to prepare two essay questions.
The essay part is open book/open notes, while the other part is closed book/closed notes. (It's a small enough class that I can do this. Everyone brings two blue books. I make the exam on two different colors of paper. If they have the essay colored paper exam on their desk, and are writing that, they can have notes out. If they have the ID/passages colored paper on their desk, they can't. I can walk around a bit, and I'm not seeing obvious cheating. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but it's not blatant. That is to say, it's not happening more because they're using notes on one section.)
The thing about notes, and I warn them about this, is that if you know you can use notes and use that knowledge as an excuse not to prepare for the exam, you can sink yourself by getting caught up in finding whatever it is in your notes and running short of time. People who prepare well are going to be well enough prepared either way. I've seen people come in with their notes all organized, with tabs, and highlighted sections, tabs on their books. All that perparation generally means that the notes are needed for little more than confidence and comfort; they may check them just to be sure, but they don't really need them once they've done that sort of organized reviewing.
Once I had an essay exam set up like this, where we were allowed to use our books, so I outlined two essays in my books as preparation. I may have referred to the outline a bit, but because I'd prepared well, I didn't really need it. The act of outlining was enough to really set it in my memory.
This semester, for the first time I remember, several people asked if they could write out essays and bring them into class as part of their notes. I said yes. Seriously? Imagine that they're spending time to draft out two Shakespeare essays. That's going to help them learn and remember! Yay for learning! (If I thought I were trying to test some "make it up right now on the spot skill" rather than trying to test whether they've learned and can connect what they've learned from one text to another, I might not like the preparation. But since what I'm trying to test is that they've learned and can connect, I'm happy for them to prepare all they want.)
I'm not always thrilled with tests. I guess they tend to make people study for real, but I'm not sure the sort of last minute studying some students do really contributes to their learning.
I don't remember the specifics of a lot of classes I took tests on in college. I do remember that college changed my way of thinking and learning, and made me a stronger critical thinker. Did studying for the tests accomplish that? Or just being in lectures? Or doing the reading? Sitting in the stairwells chatting with other students about their lives and experiences? Arguing about whatever it was we cared about (usually not related to our classes, by the way)?