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Gatorade At the Finish Line: Some Thoughts on Student Engagement During Exam Week

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.

Around this time in the semester, I find myself telling students that we’re almost at the finish line. The race metaphor is used by many professors in these final weeks, I think. It’s my way of cheering for my students in addition to cheering for myself, as I’m super tired too. But wanting something to be over doesn’t help anyone embrace the end of the semester. Over the years, I’ve devised some metaphorical energy drinks for students as they approach the end of our time together.

One way to promote student engagement at exam time is to create a lot of classroom games. These games are high engagement on the part of students and low prep time for me. This week in my Humanities 101 class, students devised educational games based on what they learned about medieval England and The Canterbury Tales. Students brainstormed themes in The Canterbury Tales, and then I put a variety of objects on a table in the front of the room. Students used the objects to create games based on a theme or themes on the board. Some objects were the usual suspects: index cards, canvas boards (for board game designers), and game pieces (from other games). Others were a bit bizarre (play doh, stickers, some forks, and a toothbrush for comedic effect). Students opted to either read the rules of the game to the class or to have their classmates play the game for a few minutes while the class observed. The point value of this activity existed, but it was low. If students didn’t participate, it did not impact their grade much at all.

I also enjoy having students generate jeopardy questions, which they write on index cards and post up with tape on the board. Sometimes I repurpose a game created for preschoolers called Snail’s Pace Race, where players move snail-shaped game pieces across a racetrack gameboard. I ask students to move their assigned snail forward one place when they get a question correct, but they also get to roll a color dice to see which random snail they will have to move forward. This game is funny because one can get nothing correct and somehow still win the game.

One of the very important aspects of games played toward the end of the semester is that they must happen completely in the classroom. Imagine being at the end of a race. You are focused and ready to finish, and you approach a detour sign. It turns out that instead of running 26.2 miles, you’re actually going to have to run 30. Your morale might tank. Minimizing new take-home assignments at the end of the semester, while gamifying final in-class study days, helps maintain student energy by keeping up morale.

A second way of helping students maintain their energy at the end of the semester is by reassuring them that you have their best interests at heart and desire their success. I let students know well in advance that I’m not trying to trick them. One way to avoid tricking students is not to create traps on exams; I work hard not to make any multiple-choice questions geared toward fooling students into getting the wrong answer. I also let students create some exam questions. It’s also helpful, of course, if the mode of final assessment is similar to the mode or modes of assessment all along. Many of us know this, but when it comes time for exams, I sometimes find myself wanting to do something different! Now is not the time to think wouldn’t it be fun if I asked my students to do an interpretive dance based on Gilgamesh?! I actually do have these ideas from time to time, but what matters is I do not act on them, at least not at the end of the semester.

I have also learned to nurture students during exam week by including reflective questions before exams occur and especially as exam questions. I want to know from students how the end of the semester feels for them. What do they wish they had studied? What did they expect to learn in the class, and were those expectations met? What, if anything, did they learn about themselves as human beings through studying ancient cultures or through completing course assignments? When I first started teaching, I saw these forms of reflection as relevant but separate from assessment, and now I see them as more important than any fact-based question; reflection is the ultimate kind of formative assessment—while answering reflective questions, one forms the self. The points I assign reflect how much I value these questions. What we need to remember to keep evolving as human beings is not the social structure of ancient Egypt, but rather the structure of our minds and the meaning only we can make of our experiences.

By encouraging students to engage playfully, trust my transparency, and reflect meaningfully as part of their final assessment, I give my students metaphorical Gatorade as they approach the finish line.

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