July 18, 2016

Take home final exam – why Earth science/the ocean matters

Posted by Laura Guertin

At the end of the Fall 2015 semester, my final exam week fell the same time as the AGU Fall Meeting. As I wasn’t on campus to give a face-to-face final exam, and my university requires a “cumulative assessment summary” at the end of a course, I designed a take-home final and shared it in a blog post, Writing a take-home final exam? Look to Chipotle for inspiration. That post has received numerous hits, so I thought I would share another take-home final exam I designed – this time, for an online course I just finished teaching this summer.

There is certainly no right or wrong format for a final exam. Two articles appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education website in April 2016 relating to grading and final exams: 5 Ways to Make End-of-Semester Grading More Enjoyable and A Final Round of Advice for Final Exams. Personally, I always work to have my “cumulative assessment summary” not only connect back to my overarching course goal and course objectives, but I try to give students a chance to be original and highlight what they found interest in and passion for during the course. Add to the mix – having a final exam that minimizes the ability for cheating and other academic integrity violations. I have used the following template in different courses over several semesters, and the student submissions seem to accomplish all that I hope – and at times, even inspire me.

In all of my courses, I emphasize the relevant discipline literacy principles, such as the Earth Science Literacy Principles and Ocean Literacy Principles. The final course objective I list on every syllabus for every course I teach is to help students frame their own response to, “why does Earth science/the ocean matter?” Keeping the literacy principles and this question in mind, I have students tap into the content they have learned throughout the course, while I tap into a format they enjoy – the TED talk (I have blogged previously about TED – an “idea worth spreading” in the classroom).

For their take-home final exam, students are told to imagine that they have been asked to give a TED talk as to Why Earth science matters, or Why the ocean matters. My face-to-face classes are told they must write a script for their TED talk, while my online class must record their own TED talk with VoiceThread and utilize images with a creative commons license (the online course introduces students to VoiceThread and public domain images in previous course assignments, so the technology requirements are not a barrier or a burden to learn at the end of the semester). I tell the students their audience is the general population, specifically a group of high school students to adults that are non-scientists.

To help students work on writing a script versus just writing an essay, I encourage them to read the Journal of Sustainability Education article Who is TED, and Why Can’t I Talk for More Than 18 Minutes at a Time?, and then view the TED video I have included below, TED’s secret to great public speaking.

The students are required to have a Reference list and include in-text citations in their script (I want to see that my students based their script on current scientific data from relevant and credible sources). As an 18-minute TED talk would be approximately 3,000 words, I tell the students their script can be anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 words (no surprise – most scripts that come in to me are closer to the 1,500 word limit). I provide the students with a grading rubric that defines the expectations for content and formatting.

This style of final exam allows students to not only pull together and highlight what they have learned, but it helps students reflect upon the importance and relevance of what they have learned to themselves and to others. This final exam also helps students think about how they could communicate what they have learned beyond our classroom walls (physical or virtual). I know that students will not remember many of the details and information from my courses (as I teach introductory-level courses for non-science majors), but if they can recall the big ideas and retain an understanding of and respect towards knowing why Earth science and the ocean matter, then I’ve connected the discipline literacy principles with a course objective.