The Wager

The year was 2002. I was teaching an advanced graduate course on Shakespeare, and I chose to give my final exam as a take-home. The questions included true/false, short answer, extended response, and one long essay.

I mentioned this while having dinner one night with friends. Brian, who runs a successful business he built himself, scoffed at the very notion of a take-home final in the age of the Internet. Couldn’t the students just look up all of the answers? This was around the time when people were starting to use “Google” as a verb, and many students were more tech-savvy than their professors. I assured Brian that the test would still be challenging as a take-home, but he remained unconvinced.

Brian offered me a wager. He would take the exam along with my students, despite not having taken the course or even knowing very much about Shakespeare. As long as he could research and plagiarize as much as he wanted, he claimed he could pass my final. I accepted the bet.

In the weeks to come, Brian became consumed with the task. He researched each question, writing and rewriting answers to perfection. He put way more time into that final than any of the students, and he plagiarized without shame. But, he completed the final on the same schedule as the students, and ended up scoring a 91 out of a possible 100 points. This was slightly below the class average, but he clearly won the bet.

However, he did admit that, in order to be successful on the final, he had to learn a whole lot about Shakespeare along the way. He may not have taken the course, but he ended up doing much of the work he would have had to do anyway, engaging with the material throughout the process.

It’s worth noting at this point that the exam only represented 10% of the final grade. Much more of the course was about participation in class discussions and completing projects. But with Brian’s self-guided work, he was able to earn 9.1% of the course grade without ever setting foot in my classroom. Had he attempted some of the projects, and applied the same level of drive to them, he could have earned even more points, learning even more about Shakespeare in the process.

This is a good way to think about assessment. We define what students should be able to do after a unit of study, and we define a way to measure whether or not they’ve learned it. The unit of study, then, should be designed to help students succeed in the measurement. If that sounds too much like teaching to the test, that’s fine, but then we should start designing tests worth teaching to.

This is the idea of the performance task. Rather than having students fill out multiple-choice bubble sheets, they do authentic tasks. They understand how the skills they are learning in school are applied in the real world. And when students show they are able to transfer their learning into unfamiliar contexts, as they should in any good performance task, they demonstrate deep understanding of the skills and concepts being covered.

So, if a student can succeed in the teacher-created assessment before the instruction, is the instruction really necessary? If students can take the initiative to demonstrate their meeting the same learning goals some other way, shouldn’t they get credit for it? And if real-world authenticity is the aim, shouldn’t students be able to use the same tools a real-world businessman would use when working toward the same goal?

These are questions we’re now grappling with in assessment. But I thank Brian for giving me a head start in thinking about them so many years ago.

One Response to “The Wager”

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