A Different Kind of Final

Last semester I implemented a different kind of final exam. In the past I have used the standard multiple-choice and short-answer exams. I was thinking about making a change when I discovered Beyond Tests and Quizzes: Creative Assessment in the College Classroom, edited by Richard J. Mezeske and Barbara A. Mezeske. The second chapter, “Concept Mapping: Assessing Pre-Service Teachers’ Understanding and Knowledge,” describes an assessment method that tests higher-level thinking. The author shared his experience using concept maps as a final exam, included an example of the final exam project, offered rubrics for grading, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the strategy. I decided this was the change I was going to make.

My first step was to contact the author. I did reach him, and we had a great conversation. Excited about offering this different kind of learning experience, I jumped right in, developing my own assignment and grading rubric. On the first day of class, I told the students that they wouldn’t have a final exam in the traditional sense, but they would have a final exam project. They were equally enthusiastic, but not for the right reason. They thought no final meant they didn’t need to study as diligently and, consequently, they didn’t learn the material as well as my previous students had.

For this final my students had to construct concept maps representing their individual understanding of what they learned throughout the semester. I provided them with an article on concept mapping and gave them step-by-step directions with examples and illustrations. The work started with students selecting a global issue, metaphor, umbrella concept, or theme. Then they decided how to format their concept maps. They could choose between a two-dimensional poster and an electronic tool such as Cmap, Visio, or other concept mapping software. The assignment challenged students to consider a wide range of issues and concepts to build their maps, including logical connectives (lines) and justifications (minimal phrases or guiding words). I provided questions that guided this process.

Students submitted rough drafts and I offered feedback while there was still time for them to make changes. Once the maps were completed, students had to write 250-word explanations of their projects. They submitted the completed maps in Blackboard, including photos of the poster boards and links to electronic files. I used a rubric with five equally weighted categories: 1) the 250-word summary explaining the concept map; 2) clear focus, logical connectives, and justifications; 3) displays of an array of subject-related concepts; 4) visual appeal, clarity, and neatness; and 5) presenting in a professional manner. During the final exam period, each student had two minutes to present his or her concept map to the class.

The assignment encouraged student creativity, and my students took advantage of the opportunity using many different themes and metaphors. For example, some of them used baseball, baking, and gardening as themes to express the concepts and the connections. I was impressed with their creativity. This was one assignment I didn’t get bored grading.

Here’s what some of my students said when I asked for written feedback on the final exam project:

  • When you teach what you learned it helps to make it stick.
  • The draft was helpful because it forced me to work on the project ahead of time.
  • I feel that I was more challenged to know and apply the material. I liked it better than papers.
  • Much better than regular exams, more fun, assuming I did well, less pressure!

Not all their feedback was positive:

  • I don’t feel that I demonstrated enough. Two minutes to me was kind of short.
  • This late in the semester, my creativity was tapped, and this made it difficult, where it was meant to be more fun.
  • It started off slightly confusing, but once I understood what was expected it was fun and enlightening.

I had to agree with the students that it was fun to do something different, and having them share what they learned with the class was a great way to wrap up the semester. I do think I did them a disservice by telling them that they wouldn’t have a final exam at the end of the course. I think that affected how much they studied. Would I use this assignment again? Definitely, but not in place of a final exam. I would use it as an alternate way to assess students’ learning earlier in the course, maybe in place of a midterm exam. I would also tweak the assignment, just a bit. I would give the students a set number of concepts (say 10 or 12) to include in their maps. They definitely need more time to present. I think somewhere between five and 10 minutes would work best.

One of the things I love most about teaching is the opportunity to try something different. Once in a while these changes work perfectly, but most of the time there is room for improvement. I’m glad I tried this alternative to the final. I learned lessons that will help my students learn more effectively from the assignment next time I use it.

Dr. Karinda Barrett is the director of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Leadership at Tallahassee Community College.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.7 (2012): 1,8.