Hack the final!

My department requires me to give a final exam in every one of my undergraduate courses at the second and third year levels. Technically this is an English Lit department, but it also manages the administration of our Theatre Studies program, on which I principally teach, and that means I’m required to give finals in all of my my lower-level theatre courses, at least for right now. What’s worse, university regulations require me to make the final exam in each class worth at least 30% of a student’s final grade. ACK!

This regulation has long struck me (even when I was primarily teaching English classes) as troublesome, and pedagogically unsound. I should say right away that I’m in no way against final exams per se; I recognise that they can be a very efficient way, especially in larger classes, to ensure students have covered a course’s broad bases and read key texts. They are a due diligence exercise for teachers and students, requiring one to connect learning expectations to potential outcomes, and the other to demonstrate that they have taken at least some of those expectations seriously.

But in classes based on the shared critical exploration of cultural works, and in particular works of art, exams have limited use value at the best of times. And in a course like my “Performance Beyond Theatres”, which introduces students to the discipline of performance studies and the practice of live art making through a political lens, final exams feel positively draconian.

My students and I have spent the term watching films from Paris is Burning by Jenny Livingston to What Would Jesus Buy featuring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping; we’ve done a workshop on Augusto Boal’s image theatre technique; we’ve made video reports about cultural events around our city; we’ve taken a road trip to Toronto for Nuit Blanche; we’ve created group performance “actions” based on current issues on campus; and together we’ve worked through the (not inconsiderable) challenges of creating a marking rubric for such a personality-driven, aesthetically-focused creative task.

In short, we’ve been a team of forensic performance makers and hacktivists, a community more than a class. How could we possibly now sit down and write a final?

I first faced this challenge two years ago. My solution then was to request a take-home exam from my academic dean, which he kindly granted. I argued that a take-home would offer my students much more scope for creative reflection on the semester’s work and ease the burden of translating our unconventional labour into basic written form. To my surprise, though, some of the students felt pressurised by the take-home-ness of the exam. If it’s to be done at home by X date, what’s to stop you from taking 30 hours, rather than 3, to complete it? Should you let it eat your life? If you don’t, will you get a poorer grade?

So I switched up the hack. Instead, the following year, I invited my undergraduate students to crowd-source the final exam with me. It worked. Contrary to what the cynics in us might expect, students didn’t generally beg for easy; instead, they thought every bit as creatively about potential exam tasks as they had about our work throughout the year. The first creative commons exam I produced, in my performance theory class in 2015, included questions like: “create your own ‘Gerouldian’* introduction for one of the theorists on the second half of the course”, and “watch the following performance clip. Select a theorist from the course. Impersonate that theorist’s voice and attitude, as well as his or her ideological position. Critique the performance clip from his/her perspective.” The resulting exam papers were an absolute blast to read.

How go about crowd-sourcing a final? This past term, in Performance Beyond Theatres, we spent a chunk of the last day of the term dreaming up ideal kinds of questions we might like to face, and then we worked together on the questions themselves. I asked the students first to weigh in on our course blog with their preferred category of exam question (short answer? essay? creative option? what kind?), and then with their ideal question based on our term’s work. About 30% of the class chose to contribute this way; in class, we looked at the responses and then did the same exercise again, this time in teams.


As we debriefed the exercise, I discovered that this group of students were keen on options: maybe an essay, OR a creative option, or both? Maybe some short answer mixed in, but again, optional – not everyone wanted that one, though some very vocally did. I suggested perhaps I could create an exam with a host of options, and students would be invited to mix and match questions, based on points value, to make up 100; this would leave the responsibility for a good range of responses up to the student, but would not pressure anyone to do any kind of task that didn’t suit their learning style. The room loved this idea.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: THIS KIND OF FREEDOM DEFIES THE PURPOSE OF AN EXAM! Honestly, I disagree. What’s an exam for? To test reading, synthesis, uptake? To find out what students learned and didn’t learn? Sure – all those things. But ask yourselves this: what do you remember of the courses you took as undergrads? I have a PhD and am a professor at a respected research university in central Canada; I remember literally FOUR pieces of content from my undergraduate career, only one of which has had any genuine relevance for me as a scholar (thank you, Dianne Chisholm!).

The stuff I really, really remember all has to do with the way I learned, the way I was taught, the collaborations I was invited to participate in, and the things I learned about myself through those collaborations. That stuff stuck with me – and it informed the teacher and researcher I became in a number of key ways.

My final exam hack, then, isn’t about creating an “easy” exam; it’s entirely about giving students ownership over the process, as well as a say in the nature of the course content and practice we are testing.


As an exam-building team in PbT, we came up with a number of great essay and creative-option questions driven by exactly this logic. One question asked students to reflect on the “learning outcomes” listed in our syllabus, and to use a technique called thick description to examine moments from the term when those outcomes were met, or not. (The results of the seven answers to that question I received were fascinating; I’ll share them in a separate post soon.) Another option asked students to reflect on a recent moment from their personal lives that could be better understood and processed using a handful of the theories we’d read or art works we’d looked at together. Still another asked students to consider a recent global event (ex: Trump’s election; the Brexit vote; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock) through the lens of our course work. My favourite creative option asked students to imagine two of the artists or theorists on our course as moderators for a Trump-Clinton presidential debate, and to create candidate dialogue based on their work. (Only one student took that option up, but hers was an utterly brilliant, smart and superbly crafted job. I laughed out loud while reading! She earned the highest grade in the class.)

There’s one more key to my final exam hack: students get to see the exam in advance. For the PbT gang, I posted the exam questions to our online learning portal the afternoon of our last class. I invited them to prepare as they wished; I emphasised that there was no “right” prep method, only the one that each student felt would best contribute to their own success. They might write answers up in advance and bring them on pieces of paper; they might plan outlines and bring those along on the day; they might re-read and re-watch course material, make fresh notes with the exam questions in mind, and bring those notes with. All books were permitted in the exam; so was food, music (in headphones), and anything else to make us more comfortable. I emphasised that this need not be a formal, hushed environment in which we fetishise sitting still and concentrating really hard; that was not the nature of our work together, so it ought not to feature in our test environment. The only rule: no disturbing those who wanted to work quietly. Some students chose to write the exam like any other, sure, but many appreciated the more relaxed environment. I know I did.

What was the result? The majority of students did very well indeed – their preparedness shone through and I saw real, marked evidence of their understanding the material. Many chose to quote readings directly, multiple times; a number made truly original connections amongst our course materials and came up with exciting new ideas. Most of all, I noticed that virtually everyone had fully prepped for the exam: books had sticky notes marking key readings; typed or hand-written notes featured bullet points and connecting arrows. A few wrote portions of their answers in advance, but this was not the norm. Mostly, the norm was fulsome readiness to explore the questions in the room on the day. I suspect that, having removed the fear factor (what will the questions be??!!), the exam hack gave students the confidence to know that preparedness would pay off, so they really, really prepared.

Will I keep doing this? As long as I’m required to give final exams in Theatre Studies classes, for sure. But to be honest I might enjoy doing it even if not required. I really like the opportunity hacking the final affords us to think critically, as a class community, about the intended purpose and outcomes of a final, especially in Arts and Fine Arts courses. Capstone tasks – from finals to presentations to portfolios – are inevitably based on a series of critical assumptions about how learning should culminate and be demonstrated; so much of our learning, though, is processual and driven not by content retention but by learning about the process of learning itself. How to “test” that? Maybe by testing the task, to see if it measures up.



PS: for those of you keeping track, I am indeed preparing the third of my reflections on mobility, space, and access, featuring a review of the astonishing Shakespeare Trilogy at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Look for that in your virtual stocking next week.

*Daniel C. Gerould was my remarkable and respected colleague at the CUNY graduate centre until his death in 2012. He edited the popular textbook Theatre/Theory/Theatre, which features gossipy, delightful introductions for each of the authors he spotlights. In my performance theory course, we use that book for one half of the term before moving on to more contemporary writings.

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