My Semester UNexam

How am I supposed to keep calm when I haven't given one single test yet this year? I'm required to give a semester exam.  What would an exam look like for a class in which students have not been tested?

I have not required my students to memorize anything, but I have required them to research everything.

I have not required my students to answer multiple choice questions with clear right or wrong answers, but I have required them to justify their varying opinions.

How the heck would I create a semester exam that fit the standard I've set?

I wasn't the only one with these questions racing around in my head.  Parents posed these questions to me throughout December parent conferences.  At least 6 or 7 different students raised their hands and asked about the exam in the weeks before winter break.  My answer was, "I have a few ideas but I haven't finalized anything.  I'll let you know with plenty of time to prepare."

After much reflection and a little creativity, this is what I came up with for my 9th graders:
History 9 – Mrs. Gallagher
Midterm Examination Guide

Three of these eight short answer questions will appear on your midterm examination.  You will have two hours to answer them.  While you are taking the exam, you will be able to use:
·     Digital or paper notes that YOU have prepared
·     Your online notebook for class (Evernote, Google Drive, etc.)
·     Our class Edline page and any documents, video clips, class notes, or other resources that are available there.

Since you will be writing 3 essays in 2 hours, you will need the entire time to write. 
All research and outlining should be done BEFORE the exam or you will run out of time.

High quality short answers will have:
·     A thesis statement that turns the question around AND answers it generally.
·     ALL terms/ideas listed with the question included in a way that helps answer the questions and demonstrates understanding of the terms/ideas.
·     A concluding sentence that reviews the main idea of the short answer.
1.   What was the Renaissance? Why did the Renaissance start in Italy?
a.    rebirth
b.    humanism
c.    classical (Greece and Rome)
d.    Florence
e.    Medici

2.   Why did Niccolo Machiavelli write The Prince? What is the main idea of The Prince?
a.   Biographical information from PBS's Medici: Godfather's of the Renaissance 
b.   Florence
c.   Medici
d.   exile
e.   fear v. love (see excerpts of the document from Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook)

3.   Explain Martin Luther’s reasons for choosing to speak out against the Roman Catholic Church.  How did the Roman Catholic Church react?
a.     Wittenburg
b.     indulgences
c.      infallible
d.     95 Theses
e.     excommunicate 
4.   How did a desire for spices and the introduction of new navigational inventions encourage Europeans to start exploring?
a.   How did people use spices?
b.   peppercorns – Use them as an example to explain how spices were treated as a valuable commodity.
c.   Explain the importance of THREE of the following navigational inventions:
                                i.     astrolabe
                                ii.    compass
                                iii.   caravel
                                iv.    quadrant
                                v.     sextant

5.   What does the image below show about the traditional reputation of Christopher Columbus in American history?  What should his reputation in American history be instead?

a.    Image analysis (Source: Landing of Christopher Columbus, engraving byH. B. Hall, 1856. Gilder Lehrman Collection.) As part of your analysis, discuss the significance of the way each of the following are depicted:
                                 i.      Columbus
                                 ii.     Items carried by Europeans
                                 iii.    Native Americans
b.     Columbus’s treatment of the Native Americans
c.     Coat of Arms – What did Columbus think of his own accomplishments? 
6.   How do we know that Spanish explorers and missionaries did not view Native American civilizations as civilized people?
a.  Types of Spanish settlements:
                                 i.      mission
                                 ii.     presidio
                                 iii.    pueblo (encomienda system)
b.   Black Legend
c.   Characteristics of Native Americans that made them civilized

7.   How does the real story of Pocahontas and the Jamestown settlers differ from the Disney legend from the movie?
a.   Legend and reality of relationship between Pocahontas & John Smith
b.   Reality of relationship between Pocahontas and John Rolfe
c.   Disney Movie story (see this excerpt of Pocahontas from YouTube)
d.   John Smith’s differing accounts: Why do they differ?
e.   What really happened? (see Pocahontas Revealed from PBS LearningMedia)

8.   Was the Massachusetts Bay Colony really a “Model of Christian Charity” as John Winthrop said it would be?
a.   Why did the Puritans move from England to Massachusetts?
b.   “Model of Christian Charity” John Winthrop
d.   Anne Hutchinson
e.   Salem Witch Trials (see these Discovery Education modules)
I felt good about it.  Once I was ready to present my new idea to the students, I posted the exam guide to my website and sent home an email to parents to update them as well.  Not every parent has bought into my new-fangled teaching methods, so a small part of me was bracing for some critical emails.  Instead, this is what popped up in my inbox less than an hour after I posted the exam guide.
Ms. Gallagher.
I just wanted to provide you feedback on the midyear exam.  I couldn't be more pleased with the format.  Reasons for my assessment: 
  • The exam is reflective of the subject matter students have been learning and the work they have been doing.
  • It calls on students to be responsible for the subject matter that has been covered.
  • It requires that the students be thoughtful and prepare for the evaluation.
  • If students plan appropriately, they have been given sufficient time to prepare for the evaluation without excessive work load.
  • The evaluation is not set up so that in order to do well, they have to cram and remember/memorize information.
  • They will be utilizing skills that are reflective of skills necessary for succeeding in life beyond the classroom.
Thank you.

I'm so fortunate to have parents who take the time to write positive thoughtful messages to me.  It meant a lot and it gave me the energy to continue pushing forward in my mission to make learning, not high test grades, the focus of my teaching.


  1. You rock! If you ever want to come work with me, let me know. You would be a perfect fit.

  2. I like this. I am in a similar situation with my 10th grade class - semester exam but no tests leading up to it. We work on writing, but kids generally have their notes and often the internet to use. We also do a lot of research where kids are studying different aspects of a topic or different empires with the same set of questions. We give kids short answer and essay questions ahead of time and choose from the list, like you do. We have not allowed notes into that assessment, though. I still have families that are highly skeptical of my student-centered, inquiry-based approach. They think I am not teaching history if I am not providing my expert knowledge and then testing students on it. Do you still have skeptics? Are you in line with the larger school culture? I feel like I have to keep having the same conversations over and over again!


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