Classes resort to different final exam formats under virtual learning


The final exam schedule for 1st semester.

During a normal school year, students and staff would now be frantically preparing for finals week at Pioneer. Exams would be written, study guides handed out, and students would already be studying, certain of the content they will be tested on. In the current online learning environment, though, final exam formats remain uncertain — for students and teachers. 

Instead of preparing a typical multiple choice test, teachers are thinking of out-of-the-box ways to assess long-term learning, including projects, written or oral responses, and open note tests to ensure fairness during testing. 

The schedule for final exams will also be different this semester. The typical exam schedule is half days on Tuesday through Friday, but this semester the exams will be half days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, leaving Wednesdays to remain asynchronous. Students will meet with each of their classes once during the week of January 25. 

“We’re required to give a culminating activity of some kind, but there is no requirement that it has to be a (formal exam). That’s up to the individual teacher, course or department,” said Pioneer social studies teacher Brent Richards. “I don’t anticipate giving a fill-in-the-blank, objective type of final this semester.” 

Instead, Richards said that he will be giving a written and a “take home variety” style of final exam, similar to his previous finals in a normal school year. His U.S. History final typically was essay-based, where students were given the essay prompt in advance to prepare for it ahead of time. Richards is planning on keeping that format for this year. 

What will be different for social studies this semester is the common assessment, a test that is part of the final grade and constant for all history courses across the district. 

The district has mandated that common assessment grades only comprise 10% of the final grade for any course.

“I wasn’t sure if the common assessment was going to happen until a couple of days ago,” said Richards. “The district put it on us that we needed to get our common assessments written. Typically, we write the common assessment before the semester starts.”

Teachers are struggling to come up with ways to test students online, knowing that they can’t prevent most forms of cheating.

“In my opinion, there is no way to do a common assessment online and maintain any integrity,” said Richards. 

Other departments have different plans for their finals. The Science Department has decided to give some students a summative final exam that is project-based. Students will be given an option of two prompts on which to build their project and will then have time in class to work on their projects. 

“Our goal in choosing a project-based summative assessment is to try to alleviate unnecessary testing stress for our students, who we feel have been under enough stress during the last nine months,” said Pioneer Earth Science teacher Angela Hood. 

The Earth Science final is normally worth 10% of the semester grade, and the new mandate will not weigh differently this year. “While the exam grades will not affect students differently this year, we hope that the method of assessment will allow students to breathe a little easier,” said Hood. 

On the other hand, the Math Department has decided to create the final exam grade out of performance tasks. 

“We’re pulling the important parts of different units and we’re going to create an assessment grade out of those,” said Math Department Chair Shannon Sherman. “Some classes are going to use portions from assessments, some classes are using projects that were done within each chapter to get the final exam. It is still cumulative for the whole semester but it looks a little bit different than it has in years past.” 

The performance tasks will look different for every course but will be common within each specific course across the district. 

Figuring out different ways to conduct final exams has been challenging for many teachers. “We’re trying to come up with the best way to be honest to the content we have taught and to help you guys earn credit based on what the state requires, while still realizing that we are in a pandemic,” said Sherman. 

Some teachers have decided to get rid of the final exam altogether. 

AP Biology teacher Jenni Wilkening has gotten rid of the midterm for her class and decided to make each quarter worth 50% of the semester grade. 

“Since AP Biology is a yearlong course and an elective, we have a bit more freedom than other courses,” she said. 

Wilkening is more concerned with preparing her students for the AP test at the end of the year than for final exams. She is planning on using the allotted exam time to continue teaching. “More time learning content with such limited contact time is super important,” she said. 

Maintaining good grades and focusing on school has been very difficult for many students this year.

“My first priority is not studying and school right now, it’s making sure that I keep myself and my family safe,” said Pioneer junior Caroline Thomas. “We shouldn’t have to have finals this year because we’re literally in a global pandemic.”

Student stress is heightened by the fact that exams will look different in every class this semester. 

“Everyone has had to shake it up this year because of our virtual curriculum. Some departments are taking this opportunity to really revamp their assessment approach, and others are trying to maintain a more traditional approach to the exams,” said Hood. 

Many teachers agree that the best way for students to prepare for finals is to talk to their teachers, and to know what will be expected of them. 

“My advice would be to be aware about what each teacher is going to do,” said Richards.

“Talk to your teachers! We’re not scary,” added Hood. 

And most of all, the teachers say, they want to make sure their students do well while maintaining some sense of calm.

“Come say hi during office hours. Teachers want to help and we miss you guys,” said Sherman.