Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Exams

It's finals season here in the Northwoods. For students, that means studying and taking exams. For faculty, that means writing exams and then grading them.

Here's my ideal for exams: a good exam should be a miserable experience for anyone who hasn't come to class or done the reading, should allow most students to show how much they've learned and to put things together in a way that helps them learn something more about the subject of the course, and should give a really good student a chance to shine through with how much they've learned and put together and worked.

The stakes in writing exams are high because a poorly written exam almost inevitably leads to poorly written student exams. It's the rare test taker who can rise above a poorly written exam. But it's incredibly hard to write good exams because you have to try to think of what will help students write and what will confuse things as minimally as possible and what will lead students into errors that aren't revealing anything about how much they've learned.

One of the difficulties is that you have to write an exam specific to the class focus and discussions, so my Chaucer exam wouldn't necessarily look like another Chaucer prof's exam even though we're both good, concientious instructors. I may focus on gender issues a lot, while the other prof focuses on economic underpinnings or religious understanding. There's too much in any good lit to cover it all in one class or exams, so our exams have to reflect and build on what we taught students.

Another difficulty is that it's hard to get good feedback on exam questions. When I have a chance, I get a colleague to give me feedback, but that colleague isn't generally in my field, and so can give me general feedback about what's confusing or interesting. S/he also hasn't been in class, so can't speak to how well the question speaks to class discussions. On the other hand, my colleagues do a great job helping me write less confusing questions, and I'm grateful for that.

Finally, a good exam question should elicit essays that don't make me want to tear my eyes out a la Oedipus.

So, I thought I'd put up an exam question from a class I taught a couple years ago, and ask for your feedback and suggestions about exam writing. Help me write better exams, please!

This is from the essay portion of the exam, for a sophomore level Shakespeare class covering four play genres. It speaks to something I love to talk about in drama classes (though not all Shakespeare profs do, of course). I expect students to spend about an hour writing this essay; they should have a general sense about three possible essay prompts during the week before the exam (because we work through possible prompts as a way of reviewing).

First, here's the general assignment:

Write an essay in response to ONE of the two prompts. In the prompts, I try to ask some questions to help you get started thinking. You don’t have to answer all of those questions, but may focus on whatever issue in the prompt you wish.

Take a few minutes to brainstorm and outline before you begin writing. You may brainstorm on this paper or in your bluebook. Underline your thesis statement.

Be as specific as possible; give examples from the texts. Write on at least three texts, including one from before and one after the midterm.

And now, here's one of the prompts:

During the semester, we've talked a lot about the ways that Shakespeare uses metadrama, a term indicating a self-reflexive practice of using drama to explore what drama is and means.

Choosing three or four texts, including one from before and one from after the midterm, make an argument about the effects of metadrama in Shakespeare's plays. Do metadramatic moments make you think differently about what you're experiencing when you read or see a play? If so, how? Do metadramatic moments make you think about the world as a sort of stage, with all of us merely actors upon it, full of sound and fury and such?

Should we differentiate the ways that metadrama works in different genres? Is disguise always a tool for metadrama, or is it only sometimes used to set up metadrama? How does gendering work (especially cross dressing) in metadrama? Does class cross-dressing tell us something about the ways that the plays conceive human being and character? Does metadrama feed into or provide tension against essentialist themes in plays (essentialist themes might include, for instance, ideas that people are born into a specific social status, and that their birth has more effect than the way they've been raised).

What do we learn from watching deliberate staged stagings of scenes that we wouldn't learn otherwise?

So, wisdom of the internet, help me write better exams, please!


  1. Wow, I will stop feeling guilty about writing exam questions that are too long! That one is a novel!

    If I were going to try this question on my own students, I'd probably condense it and drop most of the questions from paragraphs 2, 3, and 4. I'd be worried that a lot of students would fail to recognize that these are "brainstorming" questions and will instead feel like they have to answer every one of them in order, and a couple of them would be so overwhelmed by the question that they would completely shut down and turn in a blank exam book. (That said, I don't know your students, so this question may be pitched just right for them, especially if you've spent some time working through sample questions and they know how to pick out the important elements.)

  2. I think you have an awesome theory about what exams should be--you're working from a great starting point.

    Like the previous commenter, I'd suggest revising the question so that it's more clear what's the ONE question that students should address--and then use subquestions, if needed, to guide them about what smaller points they should include in their answers (if you want to go that way--sometimes, I have one big question that needs to be answered with 2 subquestions, for example).

  3. You could also think about the visual presentation of the question on the page --- breaking it up as much as possible, even having a main question with a bulleted list below it of some "themes" or "issues" that they might want to consider in their answers --- and a little reminder that they don't have to discuss every bullet point listed.