Creating Challenging Exams

...exams should push students outside of their comfort zones.

—Arthur Bahr

Classes I taught previously were essay-based, as opposed to exam-based, so determining how difficult to make the exams for this course was challenging. I wanted to stretch students academically, but because they are so smart, this required throwing tough stuff at them. The dilemma is how to do this without the exams seeming punitive. One strategy I devised is to allow students opportunities to make choices throughout the exam. For example, I asked them to select seven out of nine sentences to translate, and I assessed their best translations. This strategy is still a work in progress, and I’m not yet completely satisfied. One thing I’m certain about, however, is that exams should push students outside of their comfort zones. Exams assessing students’ mastery of dead languages, such as Old English, Latin, or Greek, too often ask students to regurgitate translations or rely too heavily on overly helpful glossaries. Although these should be components of the exam, I encourage educators to think of ways to help students move beyond these exercises. Often this involves a lot of effort on the part of the course facilitator, as composing sentences in Old English from scratch for students to translate is hard work!

Using Mock Exams as an Opportunity to Model Thought Processes

I borrowed the concept of mock exams from science and engineering classes at MIT. I felt mock exams were valuable for students taking Old English primarily because the mock exams gave them a sense of how difficult the real assessments would be and how they needed to pace themselves when taking the exams. Additionally, they provided an opportunity for me to model the thought processes involved in completing complex tasks, such as sight translations, which are unusual to include on exams. I don’t know of anyone else who includes them, but I do because all of the Old English textbooks have glossaries that are extremely helpful—but almost overly helpful. When glossaries hold your hand too much by telling you that a word is accusative, plural, or masculine, for example, you are not really learning Old English—you are learning how to use an Old English dictionary. I wanted to help students move beyond that. Sight translations were very challenging for students on the first exam because they’d only been taking Old English for four or five weeks, and I was expecting them to translate sentences without the help of a glossary.

After they completed the mock exam on their own, we went through each sentence together during a class session. We discussed how they approached their translations and typical syntactic structures in each sentence. For especially hard sight translations, I shared with them what was particularly difficult about the sentence and why I expected them to figure it out. This process of modeling was very important for students who had limited exposure to foreign languages prior to this course.

The mock exams were also valuable to me, as an instructor, as a form of self-assessment. I knew that if all of the students performed poorly on a particular item, I needed to reassess how I was teaching that concept.