UNexam 2.0

In our test-heavy educational environment, no one is immune from the exam experience.  I do my best to push back by creating a collaborative learning environment throughout the year in my high school history classroom.  My students investigate, analyze, and create to prove what they've learned.  I've said it before: I don't give tests.

Well, as final exam week approaches later this month, I am forced to break that promise.  How can I give an exam that meets my school and department expectations while being true to my teaching and learning philosophy?

In the past, I gave what I called an "UNexam" and wrote about it last January.  It worked like a dream and received a positive response from parents, students, and my PLN.  This writing and media-based exam works great in January, but in June when I'm eyeball deep in 120 lengthy research papers it feels overwhelming to think of even more essays filling my Google Drive during that last week of school.

How do I balance my teaching philosophy with the end-of-school-year time limitations?

Answer: Let the students create their own exam.

Here's how we are structuring it:

One Topic Per Week

There are three major topics left to cover in our curriculum.  All of the previous topics we covered do not need to be on the final exam because every student has a complete portfolio of learning on a blog.  Evan's blog and Akshita's blog are great examples.  There are three weeks of classes remaining in the school year to cover these last three major topics.  Each week, students will receive resources that cover one topic.  Resources include video clips, biographies, and primary source art and writings.  For instance, this week they are learning about the rise of big business in late 19th century United States.  Students received:

  • a series of flipped lesson style videos from ABC-CLIO that cover concepts like social Darwinism, monopolies, immigration, and laissez faire policies
  • biography of John D. Rockefeller
  • biography of Andrew Carnegie
  • documentary clip on the Homestead Strike
  • primary sources from a published teacher lesson

Structure with Room for Student Choice

Each class meets for 55 minutes 4 times per week.  During that time they have to learn about the topic, analyze the resources, develop a clear understanding of the significance of this topic in history, and then create the questions that will represent this topic on the exam.  I created this weekly plan for them:

Within these guidelines, some classes chose to create shared Google Docs for note-taking to which they all contributed.  Others wanted to take notes individually in Evernote at first, then have a class discussion to share out their understandings later.  I let them decide based on the class culture they have developed over the course of this year and their learning preferences.

A photo posted by Kerry Gallagher (@kerryhawk02) on

Collaborate and Monitor

I stepped back and said little as they worked, but did watch over their shared Google Docs.  I listened in on class discussions as they decided on essential questions and evaluated one another's exam questions.  This part has been incredibly rewarding for me.  They have a clear understanding of the standards we have set for individual and collaborative responsibility this year.  They are holding one another accountable for the quality of work produced.

The final exam will have 40 questions to represent each of the last three weeks of classes for a total of 120 multiple choice questions.  Although I am giving a traditional exam, I do feel as though it is an UNexam because of the non-traditional way it will be created.  My hope is that each student will score well on the exam produced alongside classmates at the end of June and will feel that, although I had to break my promise to never give a test, they had real voice in how that test was made.


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