What Do Final Exams Mean During a Pandemic?

Historians in the News
tags: teaching, online learning, COVID-19

Where should professors rethinking their approach to finals begin?

Kevin Gannon, who directs the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University, has this advice: “I think the first thing we need to do is ask ourselves: What are the learning goals of the final exam, or the final project?”

After that, says Gannon, who is also a history professor, faculty members can look at their typical exam and ask: “‘Is this the only way I can get to those outcomes, or are there other options?’ And chances are, the answer is there are other options.”


Reflection can help professors improve their teaching. It can also help students deepen their learning. This semester, professors might ask their students what they’re taking away from their courses — and from learning under these unprecedented circumstances, Gannon says. “Any way to get them engaging metacognitively,” Gannon says, “I think could be really helpful.”

That’s the direction Christopher Jones took. Jones, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, didn’t make many changes to the final in “Colonial American Family History,” which he was teaching for the first time. Sure, students could look up information on the internet if they really wanted to. But BYU has a strong honor code, and any students who didn’t follow it, Jones figured, were only hurting their own learning. He wasn’t about to police them.

Jones did make one change, adding a question that asked students to reflect on their experience during the pandemic, and how it will shape their approach to studying family history. The question isn’t simply academic: The university offers a bachelor’s degree in family history and genealogy, and students go on to work at companies like Ancestry or Family Search.

The course, Jones said, covered disease and widespread death and family separation. “And all of a sudden, here we were living amidst a worldwide pandemic, where they were either separated from their families, or suddenly living with their families again for those students who returned home” — perhaps having thought they’d never live there again.

Finals have wrapped up at Brigham Young, and Jones has already read his students’ exams. There were a wide range of responses, he says, “all of which were really interesting, but also moving, and, sometimes, heartbreaking.”

As he neared the end of a difficult semester, reading his students’ reflections made grading finals a meaningful activity for Jones. He has already saved them on his computer so he can revisit them later. He is, after all, a historian.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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