My Rowdy Approach to Giving Exams

Most of the time, teachers tolerate giving exams.  They are a pain to write, administer, grade and deal with all the potential fallout of students who want to challenge our grading, or make up a missed exam session.  Often, exams add nothing to the students learning and some can actually confuse the understanding the student had straight, as in:

38)  Which of the following is correct?
[__] A. This answer sounds familiar, but feels wrong somehow.
[__] B. This answer looks correct, but has one extra word, “not”,  making it incorrect.
[__] C. This answer, which is at least partially right.
[__] D. This answer sounds correct, but is worded strangely.
[__] E. Both C and D above.
[__] F. All of the above.

In the best of worlds, exams accurately measure how well the student learned and does not screw up their understanding when wrong answers are offered right next to correct ones.

One dynamic rarely mentioned is that students think carefully about each question, so if you put a misleading answer in their head, you run the risk of them forgetting which answer was right and which was wrong.  Ugh – given this, have you ever TAUGHT a student the wrong answer to a question by mistake?

As an instructor, I had to give lots of exams.  UC Berkeley insisted that I had objective means of determining grades.   So I was stuck with giving exams.  One day I just plain got sick of it and decided to try something that was better for the students, better for me and would not injure the UC or, I hoped, my job.  Here’s how it unfolded.

“Okay everyone, it’s exam time.”

“Groan – grumble – ” and other signs of gastrointestinal distress.

“Yea – you know, I’m not too thrilled either, so tonight we’re going to try something different.  The exam will look like the previous exams; all the questions will be True / False or Multiple Choice to make grading easy on us.  Yes, I said “us” because right after I call time, you’ll swap exams with someone sitting near you and grade that person’s paper while they grade yours.  But as we review our answers we’re going to add a new spin that I bet you’ve never heard of.

“I’ll read out each question and then announce the correct answer.  You are then invited to , and listen very carefully, you are invited to challenge my answer to each and every every question.”

Exam sheet

Suspicious and dubious looks came back at me from around the room.

“Here’s how a challenge will work.  If you think my answer is flawed or ambiguous or flat out wrong – you get to call me on it.  You will make your case right here, from your seat and before the whole class.  I’ll consider your challenge and defend my answer as I see fit.  We’ll discuss our positions, others can weigh it and we’ll beat your case up until one of us prevails about whether my question and answer are clean and tight or flawed somehow.  Make your case as strong as you can because, if you win, you could be a hero tonight!

“Yea – you could be a hero because any question and answer that you convince me is flawed gets to stay in for grading, but everyone – the whole class – gets it right.”

Now eyes are wide open – some are already rising to the challenge as if the scent of blood is in the air.

“Mr. Wilson, does this mean that if I missed all the multiple choice questions – but  manage to successfully challenge all of them – we’ll all get them all right?”

“Yes – but you better have great arguments for each challenge.”

“Can we challenge a question we got correct?”

“Sure – if you see a weakness in a question and win me over – you are everyone’s hero for that question.”

“Why are you doing this?  It could take all class to get through the exam.”

“Ah – great question!  This will work because you want a high grade.  The UC would not mind much if I give out a class-full of “A”s as long as I know you have learned the material.  You watch what is about to happen.  You’ll be tempted to join a challenge yourself, while some may help me argue against the challenge because they have a better one.  During the grading portion, you will each hear and applaud or groan about each challenge and you’ll cheer for any successful challenges – but I know with certainty you will be thinking about each question in detail because you want all the points you can collect toward your final grade.  And who among you does not want to leave as a hero?  As for me – I only want you to think hard about each question so you leave knowing the answer.

“This test, will not just measure your learning – it will enhance it.”

And thus the drama began. I got them all started and watched the clock to give them, 15, 10, 5, 2 and 1 minute warnings before calling time.  “Please make sure you name is on your paper and exchange it with someone behind or in front of you.

“The first question reads; bla – bla – bla and the answer is ‘C’.”

Immediately several hands shot up and the game was on.  Of course, they were my most outspoken and extroverted students. I parleyed their arguments against almost every question.  With each challenge, more students were drawn into the melee.  We quickly found ourselves laughing at some of the challenges.  Some were so clever that I joined the class corporate response of “oooohhhh – sneaky….”.

My wording was questioned, my commas were attacked, my grammar was abused, my logic was spindled and my air-tight conclusions were breached.  If a student thought my lecture notes or the textbook said something different than my exam, the class cheered their prosecutor on to any possible victory as the references were sought out and quoted for all to consider.  I also had to beat down many wild Hail Mary attempts to unseat a query.  I told more than one student that they had missed their calling and it was not too late for them to become an attorney.

There were a few shy students who remained scared to death of what was unfolding before them.  These were waters too dark for them to navigate. There were others who presented arguments so outrageous that even their peers laughed at and openly mocked them into silence.

Actually, we all laughed.  By mid-exam, almost the whole class engaged by progressing or dismissing various arguments or by bringing out the text books or lecture notes to cite chapter and verse only to run into me, the sole arbitrator of final truth.  Forensic gangs arose and disappeared with each new question.  They pressed hard, extra opinions were added, one guy even tried to incite a mob vote – only to be soundly crushed by the benevolent dictator – me.

A few questions did fall and when the first one did – the whole class went wild – cheering as if a major goal shot was just made and their first hero (one of my extroverts) stood to take a bow.  Everyone realized I was not kidding.  Questions could be found fallible and could be defeated with sound arguments.  I over-acted sarcastic levels of pain and anguish when actual weaknesses were uncovered.  The few shy students still looked like they were trying to stay clear of a simmering riot and the comparison was not completely inaccurate.

Several students came up to me afterwards and told me that this had been the best exam they had ever taken.  Many went home out of breath from laughing, but with better grades and several went home as class heroes.

The instructor of the boring statistics class next door was not pleased with me in the least.  “Perhaps, Mr. Wilson, you could give your next exam in the gym where such racket belongs…”.  I was thankful that my classes were already popular and profitable because this became germane when Ricard, my UCBX Director, called to inquire what had happened.  When I explained, he too laughed and congratulated me on the clever approach to turning a test into another method of teaching and measuring learning.  Apparently, this was the first time one of his computer science classes sounded more like a basketball game.Night Wing performs for School #29

I worried that I may have just created a monster and had a nasty list of things to fix in my exam questions, but – and don’t miss this point, everyone knew that material through and through!  They worked so hard to mortally wound my questions that they hardened their command of the material by examining and cross examining each question as if it could make the difference between a better grade and jail time.

Granted – this method clearly would not work with all classes, or all ages groups, but where it does work – I can promise you – it works spectacularly.  You and your students will never – ever forget it.

And that stuffy guy boring his students in the next room really needed to be tweaked anyway – so enjoy!

GW bio card 4

11 thoughts on “My Rowdy Approach to Giving Exams

    1. So two wins with one story! I’m a happy guy!. If you recall my article about “My Big Accomplishment” – it was the same material – which could have been very dry. But I get bored easily (as my wife will attest) so that doesn’t happen much on my watch.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dry is not a word I would use to describe your writing! So if boredom keeps you writing, I hope you stay bored mister! lol good work! But don’t be too boring…remember happy life….happy wife We women have to stick together. 🙂


  1. It’s sort of comforting that you were a weirdo to more than our small group of oddballs in high school. I salute you, sir!


      1. If I were still teaching adolescents I would have used your method. It actually tests them more than an ordinary multiple test exam would!


    1. Hi Katharine! And I’m so glad you stopped by to give my story a read. I no longer teach for the UC and so haven’t had the chance to use my own idea since then, but such great memories I now carry around from this one idea. I’ve had lots of fun as a teacher – but this was one of the most reproduceable and fun ideas I came up with. Some of those classes really started sounding like small riots and my student reviews were off the chart great. Please stop by any time.


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