Making Academic Writing Meaningful: Preparing an Exam Prompt

Today I am thinking about how to create a meaningful writing challenge for my students within the borders of an essentially artificial exercise–the semester exam. For one of the sections of the exam I plan on including a slightly unusual task for a fairly traditional goal–to ask students to demonstrate their understanding of A Raisin in the Sun by analyzing specific textual evidence and key themes. The unusual task will be to extend a creative assignment they completed during the semester into the essay question. There are two options I considered regarding how to define the task for students.

Here is the plan:

  • Each student has already completed an assignment where he or she wrote either the next scene after the ending of the play (Act Four, Scene One) or a scene directly preceding the beginning of the play (the immediate antecedent action of the play). Their task here was to imagine that they found Lorraine Hansberry’s lost scene for the play. Their goal was to write the scene that best fits with the play they read. In order to do this well, students have to know the play well, understand the voice and motivation of each character, and have a good understanding of the key themes and ideas of the text.
  • For the exam I thought about two options to push this original assignment another step– Option One: hand them their own scene back and ask them to defend the decisions underpinning the new scene they wrote. In order to better direct their responses, I would identify the decisions I would like them to defend with evidence from the play. Option Two: hand them a copy of one of their classmate’s scenes and ask them to defend or challenge the choices the other student made with evidence from the actual play Hansberry wrote. I would identify the specific decisions I would like them to either challenge or defend.
Either option would work well in giving me insight regarding my students’ ability to understand and discuss the central ideas in the play. Working with either their own writing or the writing of a classmate, I believe my students will face a more engaging and meaningful task than a traditional essay prompt would provide.
(I have chosen Option Two though it was not my first idea. Option Two is the result of a hallway conversation with the English Department Chair, Bart Griffith, who stated the idea after I explained Option One. Our conversation provides a great example of how conversations with colleagues are vital to enriching our work with students and to expanding the horizons of our decisions as faculty members. On Monday I will let my students know the plan for this component of the exam, and I will give them one last chance to revise the scenes they wrote.)

2 thoughts on “Making Academic Writing Meaningful: Preparing an Exam Prompt

  1. Bo Adams December 3, 2011 / 5:04 pm

    Great thoughts about making the best of an “exam situation.” What if students posted to an online tool the acts that they wrote, so that their audience could be even wider? What if we developed systemic blogging habits as a school so that students could write to a more authentic audience? What if during the semester they had engaged various “panel members” who have additional expertise in the play? What if the “exam” had been to post those acts to elicit responses from the panel?

  2. John Burk December 3, 2011 / 5:14 pm

    Ross,
    You should also talk to Chelsea about her brilliant idea for making an exam that is useful and seen by more than just the teacher and student. In her environmental sci class, she’s tried to make every assignment have a useful public purpose, and so she’s decided to make her exam a blog. Students will come to the exam and write a post on 1 of 11 of the major ideas from the unit for 40 minutes. Then for the rest of the exam time, students will have to comment on each other’s work. This week, she and her students are going to design the rubrics for the posts and the comments, and assign the topics they’ll be writing on. When everything is done, not only will Chelsea have a good idea of each student’s understanding, the class as a whole will have a permanent archive of its collective understanding—which they can add to later, and perhaps, even future classes will be able to expand.

    It occurs to me that you could probably do something similar with your assignment as well, and it would be very cool to collect all these extra scenes together in one place.

    And it’s great to see that faculty are developing exams that involve no stress, give students a chance to show real mastery, and are 100% cheat-proof.

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