‘Innovative’ exam sparks discussion
With her laptop in hand, freshman Megan Greig curled up on the art wing floor and began taking her Honors Human Geography exam.
In January, social studies teacher Richard Wojewodzki administered a research-based exam for his Honors Human Geography students, giving his students “full open access to the Net as well as collaboration with their peers during ‘exam time,’” Wojewodzki posted on his blog, “Teach Paperless.”
The 14-question exam, which Wojewodzki posted to his class blog on exam day, covered topics from the use of the word “soda pop” in New Mexico to the 2011 G20 summit in France.
“It was kind of confusing, and most of it wasn’t about knowing [facts]. The exam focused on how to learn and research to help ourselves form our own opinions,” Greig said.
According to Wojewodzki, the exam asked students to “reflect a variety of skills they’ve learned over the semester to test your ability to actually become a researcher in Human Geography” as opposed to testing one’s ability to memorize information.
“I was intrigued [by the exam],” Principal Paul Barker said. “I don’t know if I would prescribe it as a way to create exams, but it’s not an inappropriate way to hold kids accountable for what they can know and do and think about human geography—mission accomplished.”
Social studies teacher Rodney Johnson realizes that “in our school, we have the unique ability to teach things differently. Each teacher has a measure of autonomy when deciding how to cover the material. However, “I do believe there should be some sort of consistency when it comes to crafting assessments that are worth 20 percent of a grade,” he said.
According to Social Studies Department Chair Jake Hollin, all teachers give their exams to the subject department head and to Vice Principal Gary Scholl “to make sure they’re properly assessing students’ knowledge in the content area. We have expectations that [the exams] will be an appropriate assessment of what was taught and would give evaluation of students’ progress in learning.”
“In this class, the exam got to the heart of what it was I wanted to know,” Wojewodzki said, adding that the purpose was for students to understand how the content they learned extended to the real world.
The exam “matches [Wojewodzki’s] his teaching style,” Hollin said. “As an institution, our strength is teacher individuality.
The final question on Wojewodzki’s exam specifically required student collaboration, which he, along with Scholl and Barker, believes is important for the real word. Partners created a “10-step plan” to fulfill the JC mission statement through the use of technology.
The idea of collaboration drew concern from faculty members such as English teacher Susan Fisher and Psychology teacher Paul Lazor. Fisher and Lazor agreed that one must have some sort of basis information before he or she could be a valuable participant in a group project or discussion.
Lazor likes the idea of using information learned in a creative way. However, “in any class, specifically social studies, before you can think critically about something or think on your feet, you have to have something to think about,” he said.
“My experience with students collaborating often leads to an uneven distribution of work…In group work, I know someone is doing the lion’s work and someone is coasting by,” Fisher said.
While Scholl acknowledges the importance of knowing some facts off hand, “There’s also another whole dimension of applying that information. In the future, that is going to be critical,” he said.
The idea of collaboration generated talk from both students and teachers about cheating.
According to Wojewodzki, “the [Honors Human Geography] exam is set up in such a way that there’s really no such thing as cheating on the exam.”
Wojewodzki checked screens randomly during the exam, but “he had to trust that we weren’t cheating on the test. The exam was built on trust,” Greig said.
“Fears of academic dishonesty can be greatly alleviated by careful and considerate design of the assessment itself,” Wojewodzki said.
Concern from several unnamed faculty members stirred up questions regarding exam requirements, specifically the two-hour format.
The administration switched from a one-hour to two-hour exam schedule in the early 2000s “to get beyond the 150 multiple choice questions and [to] get new approaches to using the exam time that requires students to use higher levels of thinking, analysis, synthesis, application and evaluation,” Scholl said.
Fisher was unaware of exact requirements for exams, but said that some teachers were upset about rumors that Wojewodzki allowed his students extra time to complete the exam.
According to math teacher Claudia Reyerson, the Math Department felt that Wojewodzki’s exam was “not consistent with what we thought was supposed to happen,” regarding time length.
However, “the truth of the matter is the two-hour time limit is an administrative convenience,” Scholl said.
Wojewodzki said that the students had the opportunity to use more time on his exams. However, he said that every one of his students completed the exam within the scheduled two hours and 15 minutes extension period.
After freshman Travis Nelson completed only eight of the 14 questions, but received an 85 percent, he wondered how the test was graded.
When grading the semester exam, Wojewodzki did not use a rubric. Instead he “[assessed] where [students] developed from the beginning of the year to where they are now.”
“It’s amazing how much of a change goes on throughout the year with each student. Still, you need to give some kid of a measurable test,” Reyerson said.
Wojewodzki said that while he believes this exam was the best way to assess his Human Geography students’ knowledge, “all teachers have different ways of working.”
Scholl said that the exam style could be applicable to all classes. “In the course that I teach [Anthropology], there are higher levels of thinking that are required, an application of ideas. I do test those things—I just don’t do it electronically. It’s just a more traditional approach to getting to that same end,” Scholl said.
“We want students here to be able to think critically, to use their imaginations, to be able to apply knowledge to things they haven’t seen before and to understand it,” Barker said.
Regardless of the format, “exams should assess what students learn and not just be a set of universal objectives,” Wojewodzki said.
Additional reporting by Collin Hoofnagle.