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The best final exam question I’ve ever given is this: “I want you to write about one thing that you figured out in this class that matters.”

This sounds simple, I know. Perhaps even a little flaky. After all, we’re the instructors. We’re the experts in the field. We’re the ones designing the exam. Surely, we are the ones who know what does and doesn’t “matter”?

In my defense, there’s more rigor here than might at first be apparent. For one thing, the question isn’t a free-for-all: my further instructions require students to articulate what matters by carefully analyzing three readings (in a literature class), three theories or essays (in a composition and rhetoric class), or three “historical/philosophical movements, literary or artistic works, or essays” (in a general education course centered on the humanities). Their point about what matters, to put it another way, must demonstrate that they’ve both learned the course content and mastered the methodological approaches taught there: literary exegesis; rhetorical analysis and effective writing pedagogies; and the historical, literary, artistic, and philosophical ways of thinking one would encounter in a traditionally structured survey in the humanities.

But simply having learned these contents and practices is not enough. Note the stunningly clumsy phrase in the original prompt: “figured out.” Figured out implies taking things further, making more out of something than what’s at first readily apparent. This is not about students as semi-passive recipients of information or as limited agents in performative work with predetermined outcomes (in psychology, in literary analysis, in cookie-cutter chem labs, in potentially every single class in every single field on campus). Rather, this is about students as makers of meaning, taking what they’ve learned and creating constellations that others might not have discovered. So often we talk about instructors needing to teach not just the content of a course (the “what”) but also the “why” of that content. Why does it matter? How does it matter? In this class. In university. In work. In life. This question shifts that responsibility—or actually, that opportunity—to students.

And oh, my. The answers students come up with. Over the years, here’s some of what they’ve discovered:

A serious question: When’s the last time you read a student essay or an exam answer that gave you pause?

I am old. My head, to paraphrase “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” so eloquently invoked above, is more than “slightly bald.” I have worked with hundreds if not thousands of students. I have read thousands if not tens of thousands of essays and exams. Until I started giving this exam prompt, I’d never received essays that said so much—about how students see the world. About the patterns they see in my courses, in our shared reading. About how those courses connect—or don’t—to their lives. About how students understood my field—both its value and its challenges. About how the collective work we do in the classroom, in my office, on paper, through our discussion boards helps students understand and find meaning in their lives.

But perhaps that’s too poetic on my part. So let me break it down another way:

  1. Some of these responses—Prufrock, for instance—talk about content.
  2. Others—reading between the lines, for example—talk about methodology.
  3. Still others—education as disruption—talk about the purposes of higher ed more broadly.
  4. Some touch on life’s big questions—seeing the “why,” seeing beauty, finding a calling.
  5. And yet others—the last two in particular—touch on how education helps us navigate life’s darker moments.

I mention this because these responses touch on many of our goals for higher education, regardless of field. This last point is important because it’s easy to look at a question like “Tell me what you figured out in this class that matters” and dismiss it as fluff. It’s not. Students in STEM fields need to be able to build their own understandings of content, methodology, and the broader relevance of their fields. So do students in politics, marketing, or music composition—in every field, in other words. Until they build these meanings, they are passengers, objects in their own learning, not subjects with agency.

It’s worth noting that the question I’m asking students to address here doesn’t necessarily have to occur on an exam. This or a similar question would make an excellent prompt for an end-of-semester (or even mid-semester?) e-portfolio assignment. Cate Denial, author of Pedagogy of Kindness, suggests asking students to write a letter to anyone the student chooses (including fictional figures), telling the audience “about something they’d learned in class that they thought was really important, and why” (2022). Over the years, I’ve discovered a few additional tricks that make the assignment successful. For one, I insist on a “clear and focused thesis” that takes a “thoughtful approach” to the course material. Yes, their exam response (or essay or portfolio post) should bring three artifacts from the syllabus into play but do so in a way that serves a single point. I’m looking for coherence, for cogency, for alignment.

Second, as I’ve already mentioned, I expect their analysis to engage the appropriate methodologies of the course and the field. For my literature courses, for instance, I insist that their theses must be “backed up by very specific and well-analyzed references, paraphrases, and quotations from our texts.”

Third, though this question is part of my students’ final exam, I’ve gotten in the habit of providing the prompt ahead of the exam and allowing students to turn it in when they show up for the test. Simply put, this is a difficult question to which I want thoughtful answers. It’s hard to be thoughtful under pressure, even more so when you’re being asked to develop a meaningful map for multiple points in a semester-long course, complete with nuanced applications of the methodologies of a field. Allowing this portion of the exam to be take-home means that students are able to do their best thinking. Which in turn means that they have the time to learn something more about the course, about the world around them, about their selves. As do I.

References

Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. 2016. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown, WV: University of West Virginia Press.

Denial, Catherine. (2022, June 10). “Going Gradeless.” Cate Denial. https://catherinedenial.org/blog/uncategorized/going-gradeless


Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World