U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Exams or Reading responses?

A couple of semesters ago I taught a methods course, with the end goal a massive research paper. I used reading responses in that class rather than exams. I became enamored of the reading response. It seemed like they were engaging the materials in a more nuanced way than if I just expected them to read for class, without any kind of evaluation.

Now that I’ve employed reading responses for a couple of semesters, I am rethinking them for next semester, in two diametrically opposed ways. I don’t like how students can fixate on a small section of the text and then it is totally unclear whether or not they read the whole text or just opened the book and read one page and wrote about that. Or else, the good students, to avoid this problem, end up writing many pages of text, which is not really the point either. I also worry that I am not giving sufficient amount of feedback on their responses. That said, I do think it is easier to deal with ideas and larger issues in writing than in multiple-choice tests. (I am teaching a 300 level history course and a 100 level course next semester). So here are my ideas:

1. There is George Gopen’s idea in his article “Why So Many Bright Students and So Many Dull Papers?” where students write two page reading responses and then write one page responses to each other. I read the material, but do not grade it other than keeping track that they did it. Their reading journals are a big chunk of their end grade, but they only get that end grade. They can come in and talk to me if they are concerned about where their grade is headed, but otherwise I don’t give any feedback. All of their feedback comes from their peers. This means they get real feedback every week, even when I am swamped and can’t provide much more than a “good” or “this needs work.” It also means they have a real audience and their ideas have consequences.

I am intrigued by this idea (mostly for my 300 level class), but there are a few things I am concerned about:

  • Students will not call each other on problematic statements b/c they are all at the same basic level of development. For example, when a student came into class last week and said something along the lines of “Du Bois converted to communism, and communism is bad, so is Du Bois a bad guy?” most people agreed with the underlying assumption, with only one lone voice suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t automatically dismiss communism in that fashion. 
  • Students will be overwhelmed by the amount of writing required.
  • Students have a research paper due at the end of the semester, and I was planning to have some of the weekly assignments be proposals, outlines, annotated bibliographies, etc. That means that the fundamental work of getting students to read won’t be there. And they probably need my feedback on those assignments in order to prepare their papers. 

2. The other option I’m playing with is to dump reading responses and do surprise reading quizzes once a week or so. We give out common multiple choice quizzes in Paideia and the grades are all over the place. But it is a pretty clear evaluation of if students have comprehended the material. Or they could be short answer/id questions. But this gets back to my time in evaluating and responding.

Thoughts? How do you evaluate whether students do the reading? Is vibrant discussion (and/or socratic questioning) enough?

Do you do midterm/final/paper in 300 level classes? Or analytical papers/midterm/final in 100 level classes? Or analytical papers/reading responses/final?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    For what it’s worth here are some things I have been doing that work well form me. At the 100 level I use a lot of short answer and short essay assignments to give the students a chance to show that they did the reading and understood it. Sometimes I will ask them to write a 1-2 paged outline of a chapter which makes them really think about what they read. Near the end of the semester when I know I will be busier with other things I give them shorter assignments. I like to have my students learn how to write good questions (research/discussion questions) because it is extremely valuable and not as easy as they think. I will have them write two research questions based on the readings for each week over the last few weeks (less grading for me, I can use the good ones for class discussion, and they still demonstrate they have done the reading).
    At the 200 level I follow a similar timeline but I give them longer paper assignments and in addition to having them do research questions near the end of the semester I also have them do one or two bibliographies. Again, easier for me to grade and it still develops important skills for them.
    All of this timing allows me to dedicate more time to the 300 level course that will be turning in longer research papers near the end of the semester. They will be doing questions and bibliographies early in the semester and drafts (first one gets peer review, second one I review, third one is the final).
    I will give a basic exam at the 100 level with short answers but as a review exercise we write the questions in class on the last day so they can show me that they know what was important, they have learned to write questions, and no one is surprised by what is on the final. At he 200 level we do the same thing but I look for longer essay answers on their finals. For the 300 students the paper is the final, there is no additional exam.
    Balancing the assignments across the levels as well as across the semester has saved me from getting buried under grading. The students continue to build their “historian’s tool kit” and tend to have a greater appreciation for how historians do what we do professionally.
    I teach four classes per semester so I need these kinds of strategies or I’d never see my wife and kids.
    I hope this helps a bit, I am sure some of our colleagues have better suggestions.

  2. Great questions! For my 300-level classes, I usually assign 6-7 monographs (about 100-150 pages a week). Every reading assignment is tied to a 2-3 page weekly discussion paper (part summary, part personal reflection, and ending with a debate question) which we use for class discussion. I don’t have them respond to each other’s papers, although that’s definitely worth considering (perhaps it would work better than Blackboard threaded discussions which are pretty lame). I don’t have a final exam but a 8-12 final synthesis paper in which students pull all course materials together in some some way.

    In my 100-levels, I do weekly discussion papers instead of quizzes as well, although it’s pretty painful grading. I also use book reviews and essay tests over lectures.

    If the study of history is a qualitative experience, does it then demand qualitative (writing) over quantitative (multiple choice, true/false, etc.) forms of assessment? I don’t know, just thought I’d ask.

    • I think it’s an excellent question on qualitative over quantitative. It is so hard to write a multiple choice question that is neither tricky nor obvious. And there is also the question of how much memorization is important. I tend to emphasize more analysis than memorization, but then the students don’t always have the “facts” easily at hand to contextualize their analysis.

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