Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Low-stakes Writing as Test Prep

In a nutshell: A low-stakes writing exercise can serve as a way of reviewing for an exam and can even allow students to participate in developing the test.

Before I make up essay questions for a midterm or final exam, I sometimes like to take the pulse of my students as to what they think the major themes of the course have been. If we are on the same page, great. If we are not on the same page, something needs to shift, perhaps on the part of the students, perhaps on my part as the teacher, or perhaps both.

You can make this "same page" a literal page by giving your students a low-stakes writing exercise in which they identify themes of the course. To make this exercise a little more creative, a little more real-world, and a little more useful for everyone, you can make it a task. For example, I gave my World Lit II students the following question as their Daily Write yesterday:
Write your own essay question for the midterm! Think of a question that relates to (a) the themes of the course, and (b) the texts we have read. Your question should include the theme or themes you want the student to focus on. It should be a question that can be answered using examples from three of the texts we have studied. My objective here is twofold: (1) to give you a chance to participate in designing your own midterm, and (2) to use this as an opportunity to discuss the themes of the course at the midpoint in the semester.
I usually collect the Daily Writes after 5-10 minutes, then lead a discussion of the question they just wrote about. In this case, I let them keep their papers, and we went around the room (we sit in a circle in this class) and read each answer (some students summarized instead of reading verbatim). As they spoke, I jotted key thematic terms on the dry erase board.

In effect, the Daily Write became a brainstorm for essay question topics. In addition, it served as a midterm review. My students were spot on in terms of the major themes of the course (Yay for them! Yay for me!). Of course, I will use their input judiciously in developing the actual essay questions for the exam. That being said, they will indeed see their own input and ideas reflected in the essay questions. That, I hope, will give them a (justified) sense of collaboration and participation in a student-centered learning process. Within the limits of the teacher-student hierarchy (I do make up the test and assign the grades, after all), this helps destabilize the traditional education "bank," to use Paolo Freire's metaphor, and contributes to a student-centered learning environment.

I notice this post is not pulling in large numbers of readers. Perhaps a video will help? Julia Sapin of the Center for Instructional Innovation at Western Washington University defines low-stakes and high-stakes writing and explains how each is used in her classroom.

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