Final Exams and PoLs

Last week, a brilliant math student asked me, “Am I going to have to explain this for the final? Because I can do it, but I don’t think I could explain it.”

She asked because, for honors midterms in January, I replaced the open-ended section with an oral exam. Students prepared to explain two different types of functions. At their scheduled time we flipped a coin to choose their topic. Terrified, nervous, or confident, they presented for a minimum of fifteen minutes to a panel of two teachers and one student. I let students choose what specifically they wanted to discuss, but they needed to be ready to answer any question related to their mathematical function.

A typical Algebra 2 exam may require students to [heavy math warning] find the vertical asymptote of a rational function. I suggested students be ready to explain why a rational function has a vertical asymptote. And their answer must not be parroting a rule or definition. To be more clear, imagine I asked you to explain to me why balloons float. You might respond that helium is lighter than air. My questions during the oral exam forced students to explain the equivalent of why helium is lighter than air. It takes more time and a deeper understanding to answer a theoretical math question like this. We allowed our students both.

I am disappointed that I cannot offer an oral portion of the exam during next week’s final exams. The presentation they will do, however, is a worthy substitute. These Presentations of Learning (PoLs) are a way for our students to reflect on their year by giving specific examples from STEM and Humanities projects as proof that they are working towards meeting the core values of GHS’ Vision of the Graduate. We also will ask for areas in which they want to improve next year. This reflection and goal-setting is the basis for their work in the fall. We are starting small; the audience is just the panel of teachers. However, we expect PoLs to grow every year into something akin to those at High Tech High and other interdisciplinary programs.

The math exam will largely be a traditional math exam. The A+ student from last week will memorize how to solve all of the problems, but there is evidence to suggest she will quickly forget most of it. In a study featured in the documentary our school has screened three times, Most Likely to Succeed, a top-rated east coast school gave their usual final exams and students averaged a B+. Three months later, on a simplified version, the average dropped to an F. In a similar study, Dartmouth College gave students who scored a 5 on their AP Psychology exams at the beginning of their college Psych course and only 10% passed.

We are a project-based, interdisciplinary program within a high school that, for our courses, requires final exams. We can count Presentations of Learning as a percentage of them. While I am excited to hear students’ triumphs, I most look forward to hearing about their goals for next year. We will expect students to remember them three months from now.

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One Response to Final Exams and PoLs

  1. Mark Hines says:

    What a great, challenging and reflective post. I completely agree with what you had to say here and am proud of you (for you?) in how you are thinking so deeply on behalf of your students for their longterm growth and affective health. Aloha!

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