Meaningful Exams For A Meaningful End

One of the most challenging things for a professor to do is to design a truly meaningful and transformative final exam or final paper. Yet, after 21 years of experience in higher education as both a student and professor, I have come to appreciate how powerfully a well-designed exam or project can bring all the pieces together into a coherent whole and help make it part of one’s life.

I vividly remember the very best exam I took. It was a three-hour test for an American studies course. We had read 11 books, and on the exam we had to employ nine of them, across four different and extremely creative essays … without repeating a book! I also think often of my best final paper: an essay for a course on Shakespeare’s plays that asked us to do the nearly impossible task of analyzing the interplay of two themes of our choosing in two plays of our choosing … in only 500 words. When I finished these assignments, I felt that I had shown my mastery not only of the wide swath of literature we had read, but that I had produced something that reflected my own new (and evolving) view of the world. I was proud of each carefully chosen word.

The fact that I remember both of these final assessments after more than 20 years says something important about what they called forth from me. Mediocre tests and papers merely make us go through the motions; we feel empty afterward, as if all we have done is regurgitate facts and information. The best tests and papers help us study and learn in a new way, and we finish feeling more full because we now understand the material in a new and richer way. We “own” the subject. It has become part of us; we have integrated it into our ideas and worldview and ultimately, into who we are.

Jesuit education is all about this kind of integration and fullness, and it culminates in how we finish our experiences. Final exams and papers are an important part of this, because they are the one moment when we can gain perspective on the whole of what we have studied. Of course, this takes serious work, and the path of least resistance is simply to aim to survive, often sleep-deprived and stressed, and hope for nothing more than to just pour out intelligible words into a blue book. But there is something more in reach — to finish the year in a truly transformative way — and the effort to make this happen is eminently worthwhile. It does not depend on just the exams set before us, but on the questions and reflection that we set before ourselves in these weeks as we study, reflect and remember.

I often encourage my students to ask the “Georgetown questions” as we get to the end of the semester. These are the questions that challenge you to take the subject matter and apply it to your evolving identity. Having seen the world in a new way — through the literature we have read, the people we have encountered, the data we have analyzed and the discussions we have engaged in— we ask ourselves how we will each respond. What new choice and commitment and self-understanding do my new knowledge and awareness call forth?

This is more than reflection for reflection’s sake, and it is more than studying for studying’s sake. It is reflection grounded in what we have studied, and it extends to touch all the other experiences of the year. Friendships and internships, clubs and service, even our failures and disappointments — these are all things we bring to the Georgetown questions. For the project we have on this Hilltop is much greater than simply acquiring facts; it is about the people we will be as we walk forth from Healy Gates. If we pay attention to our experience of this past year and all that we have learned, we will be both rightfully proud of many accomplishments, but also quieted and humbled by a greater appreciation of our own inevitable limitations. We will be inspired by mentors and classmates, and we will recognize how much we are dependent on one another for support, wisdom and encouragement. We will be more truly ourselves, the same selves that arrived to New Student Orientation, yet also truly new and not ourselves, with a sense of commitment, responsibility and connectedness that we could never have dreamed possible then.

So, dear Hoyas, as classes end and study days begin, seek to make the most of this unique opportunity to finish the year well. With depth and integration, find pride and gratitude in all you have learned and experienced. Decades from now, may you remember these tests and papers as your “best” ones, having discovered in them your own ongoing transformation, purpose and even joy.

Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an assistant professor in the government department at Georgetown University. This is the final appearance of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT… this semester.

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