As the end of the year approaches (two weeks for me, but I know a lot of you will be in the trenches until late June), I find myself in a constant state of re-assessment of how to properly cap off a year’s worth of learning. The traditional method is with a cumulative final exam, which is in fact a requirement in many schools – my school allocates a two-hour block to every class for the purpose of administering exams, and I teach junior high.
The idea, I guess, is that students are expected to demonstrate that they’ve learned and internalized everything taught over the course of the year. In my experience, though, cumulative exams are more a source of stress than anything. Looking back on my own education, I can say with certainty that I would never point to my performance on an exam as an illustration of how much I’d learned. More often, they were a illustration of long nights of studying, of anxiety, of caffeine. The grammar method of Latin in particular has a reputation for being “crammy,” requiring memorization of long lists of vocabulary and grammatical terms. The more I learn about the daily lives of my students – already laden with tests, athletic contests, clubs, performances, and competitions of all stripes – the more I feel the desire to relieve them of the stress of a final exam. It isn’t worth it.
Rather than exams, the things that I would point to as crowning achievements of my education are the things I created – things I wrote, things I presented, things that came from my own brain. I can’t imagine I’m significantly deviant from the norm in this regard. And so in recent years, I’ve been moving towards more creative final exams. How better to end an academic year than with something my students can own and be proud of?
Personally, I’m fond of capstone projects, composed in Latin. My beginning students create projects on Greco-Roman myths of their choice, my more advanced ones cover Roman emperors. In between there are all kinds of subjects my students have covered: Roman holidays, deities, famous buildings, poets. I try to remain flexible year to year and ask my students what they’d like the medium of their projects to be. Depending on skill level and preference they can be low- or high-tech, individual or collaborative, a slideshow, a poster, an oral presentation, a movie, a narrated Minecraft video in the vein of Divus Magister Craft – I try to vary from year to year. I keep my rubrics basically the same: Get it done on time, show effort, give citations, use X/Y/Z grammatical feature and X/Y/Z vocabulary, make it look nice. I try to give a lot of class time over to preparing these projects in order to minimize time anxiety, as my students often don’t have a lot of collaborative free time outside of class. I use our final two-hour block as a forum for students to present their capstone projects.
My students seem to love this style of exam; the ones I’ve taught over multiple years remember fondly the highs and lows of previous capstone projects: In my advanced level class, graduating this year, they good-naturedly tease a classmate: “Are you going to finally finish your Hercules presentation from two years ago, Matthew?” (the time limit for this oral report was 15 minutes, and I cut him off at 45) In a first year class, a giggling student puts together a poster on the murmillo gladiator: “Ummm, what’s the Latin for ‘half-naked’?” And in yet another class, a boy who is not a high achiever in Latin, but is passionate about stadiums, still talks with joy about his slideshow on the Colosseum.
A final exam remembered with a smile – if that’s the best I can do as an educator, I’ll take it.