Monday, August 31, 2015

The Bitter End?


By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

A colleague recently forwarded me an article that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education called Final Exams or Epic Finales . The author, Anthony Crider, describes how his dissatisfaction with the traditional “final exam” closure of a class led him to consider alternative assessments and activities for the last day of class.

Goodbye TOEFL Style

In some ways, I can relate to Crider’s frustration. I, too, have experienced the “hushed farewell” that he and his students exchange as they are turning in their final exams. In the Spring, I taught a TOEFL Prep class, and the final exam took up the entire final day of the class. So, my last exchange with students with whom I had worked all spring to develop a relationship and of whom I was so proud, wound up being a whispered, “Have a good summer. Good luck on the ‘real’ TOEFL!” as they slunk out of the exam. In truth, I did get to make a little speech about all their hard work before the exam began, but I suspect most of them were not really listening and probably just wishing I would stop blathering so they could get on with the test. As Crider says, “[t]his is not how a course should end.”

Not a Final, but a Finale

Crider’s article goes on to describe an alternative final assessment that he developed. His argument that a course shouldn’t end with a final exam because “[w]here a “final” implies that one is done discussing something, a ‘finale’ is something that inspires speculative discussion beforehand and reflection afterward.” In other words, rather than having students cram facts from a text book and lecture notes into their brains in the weeks before the exam only to regurgitate them on to a test paper and then immediately forget them, he wanted students to apply the information they’d learned in the class to a new subject and reach their own conclusions.

All of this got me thinking about how my students have spent their final hours in my classes. In some classes, like the TOEFL Prep class, the students do a final exam and then leave. However, in many others, while the final exam is certainly a part of the last day, I usually schedule it for early in the class and we “celebrate” for the last hour or so. Sometimes, if the students are particularly organized, they bring food to share or sometimes we play games.

However, while I think Crider would approve of this, I have long been a little uncomfortable with spending valuable class time in such an unstructured way. As much as I love eating, especially delicacies from around the world, once the plates have been filled up and people are munching away, what happens next? In classes of 15 to 20 students, how can I ensure that all students get to talk without turning a fun, social event into a formal discussion? In such a large group, the students don’t usually start up the conversation. I quickly become uncomfortable with the silence and start to shout questions out. “Jin Woo, what are you going to do on your summer vacation?” “How about you, Mohammad?” “And you, Elise?” And on, and on, and on. I can’t seem to stop myself.

Good Bye in a Mirror

Last spring, I tried something new. During the last week of my (high intermediate) Pronunciation class, I had the students work on mirroring projects in groups. They worked together to find a short video clip on the internet, found or transcribed the transcript, and marked it with pronunciation symbols. Each person in the group assumed the role of one of the speakers in the video clip and they memorized their lines and movements so they could mimic or “mirror” their character. The week before the last week of class, I had each group send the original video clip, and I used my digital camera to film the students’ versions of the clip in a private location.

On the last day of class, the students were very eager to see themselves and their classmates on the big screen. We did the usual sharing of food and then I dimmed the lights and we watched the projects one by one, first the original version and then the students’ mirror of it. They were, in a word, hilarious. We laughed at the bad camera work, at the forgotten lines, and at the funny substituted props. But, to my surprise, the students’ videos were also really good. Many of them clearly worked very hard to get their character’s intonation, cadence, pauses and word stress down. I was blown away, and I think Crider would have given the thumbs up, too.

So, what do YOU do on the last day of your classes? Do the students shuffle out after a grueling final exam or do they leave laughing and talking after a fun activity? Does your class end with a murmur or a bang?

Crider, A. (2015) Final exams or epic finales, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 61(42). Retrieved from


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December 10, 2015 at 2:14 pm

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