5 29 2019 blog

Summer is breathing its warm breath. Our students feel it calling… WE feel it calling. We’ve all earned this rest! But first, the test.

Semester exams have always been an enigma to me. I have never been able to just go to the cabinet, pull out last year’s exam, and give it again. There is always something I want to do better, more efficiently. My exam represents 20% of my students’ overall grade, so how I design it is really important! It is ONE test that can really affect the average of their whole semester.

The first 14 years of my career, I gave a scantron exam. In it, I collected all of the vocabulary, cultural tidbits, and verb conjugations that we had done and students bubbled through 150 true or false and multiple choice questions to show me what they had learned. The problem? They really hadn’t learned it. They spent a lot of time memorizing words for this exam that they should have “memorized” when we studied that chapter… Basically, this exam was showing me more about what they could cram than what they actually knew. So my quest for the perfect exam began… (and still continues).

In its next iteration, I decided to make an exam that hit the 4 big skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. In this exam, students read both an authentic piece and a story that we’d done in class and answered multiple choice questions on a scantron. They listened to a native speaker and to me telling them a story and answered questions on a scantron. They chose a favorite story we’d told and gave me a 2 minute summary as their speaking portion, and wrote about their favorite part of a reader in the writing section. It worked… but not really. By the time we had finished the listening and reading, they had just 40 minutes to write and speak, so they did it fast! It gave me a pretty superficial look at how well they could use their new language.

Three years ago, I gave myself a heart to heart talk. In class, I have been using performance based rubrics for several years because I believe that eventually each little performance results in actual language proficiency. The semester exam follows several small and a few big units. In these units, I do frequent formative interpretive assessments and at least 3 summative speaking and writing assessments as the semester progresses. I have already weighed the pig. It made me ask myself: Does this exam need to be another, longer weighing? Simply put, no.

Now, I’ve given myself the freedom to enjoy rather than dread the final exam! I’ve given myself permission to choose the assessment that lets them show what they really know. Basically, I’ve given myself permission to do what’s best for my students.

My exam design:

  1. I make a list of the topics we’ve studied in the semester.
  2. I give them 3 choices of “styles” of writing. Ex: Compare/Contrast, Just the Facts, Persuasive
  3. I give them 3 choices of product. Ex: Essay, Letter, Magazine Article

I give the students these and the performance based rubric as their “study guide”. Technically, there is nothing to study but some like to look back through a reader or read a summary of a film that we’ve done to refresh their memories!

The last class day before the exam, I give them some time to make a cheat sheet. This sheet is to help them organize their thoughts. The cheat sheet can only have 4 complete sentences: 1 attention getter, and 1 sentence for each of 3 main points in their product. The cheat sheet can have vocabulary and transition words that they want to be sure to include. Ex: We watched Viva Cuba in Spanish 3 and several wanted to know how to say compass because the boy loses his map but still has his compass. Finally, the cheat sheet can have key verbs like tenía, quería, era, estaba, and fue… Things they want to be sure to get right.

making cheat sheets

Making “cheat sheets.”

Why a cheat sheet? Why not? I have noticed a strong correlation between self-selected vocabulary in our units of study and acquisition of the unit vocabulary. The same correlation seems to exist between words they want to know for the exam and words they use correctly in context the next year. If they take ownership of the words they need, they just mean more to them!

The products I got this year were amazing! I had 2 students write a paragraph, one write a half page, the other 57 Spanish 2s in my classes wrote 1-3 pages on their topics. It gave me so much joy to see them using a second language to talk about one of our units of study! SO SO much more joy than a scantron!

Don’t be afraid to shed the weight of a long, complex, 150 question final exam in favor of a focused topic that lets you see them beginning to take flight! I promise you’ll laugh at the funny things they say, be moved by the thoughts they think, and be inspired to continue inputting into next year’s students.

writing sample

The finished product.

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  • ahanenburg
    Posted at 07:53h, 31 May

    Yes, yes, yes! I am over here cheering. I can’t tell you how many times I have said I am working on exams, or need to write exams and people say, “Can’t you just use last year’s exam?” Um no. Even my colleagues say this, but I have just decided that a history or math exam is different than a language exam. I love how you said that you write exams each year because, “there is always something you can do better, more efficiently.” This is going to be my new answer.

    I don’t allow a note card because I tell myself they have to produce language without a cheat sheet…but your use of it makes a lot of sense and is something I may consider for next year. Your joy love for your students and desire for their success shines through Carrie!

    (P.S. I also appreciated the blog post about not allowing yourself to shut down right away so you can take time to reflect. I think I am going to try and do some planning right away while my motivation is fresh!

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