Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Teacher replaces written final with a practical lab exam (Part 1)

Winston Churchill once wrote, “There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” It was indeed not an easy decision to leave the time-honoured convention of a final written exam and replace it with a final practical exam in my chemistry courses.

Yes, I do in fact test in the traditional manner in each of my chemistry courses. My courses require students to write four written unit tests, each worth 10% of their final grade. It would be professionally irresponsible for me not to ever do formal written testing because it would leave my students ill-prepared for the traditional method of evaluation in a post-secondary setting. Students are successful because I require them to plan, memorize, practice and study smaller amounts of material instead of testing the entire course content all at once.

Instead of a written, formal exam, my chemistry students perform a formal practical final exam involving a variety of experiments from the course — for the most part — in the last five days of the semester. After seeing academic performance generally decline in the waning days of each semester, I felt something had to change in my classes.

I believe my students were no longer producing successful outcomes with a traditional exam for several reasons. A main one was that my high school has no dedicated study week per se. My students must manage both to complete the course and prepare for their exams simultaneously. This is a significant challenge for the highly organized and an impossible climb for some who are perhaps less motivated. Most university students are given some study time before exams, but this is no longer the case in many secondary schools. I began to realize that even the most diligent students are given too much to do within seemingly impossible-to-meet deadlines. Essentially, we are setting our students up for failure.

I have set up my practical exam such that, in order to succeed, students must work hard and apply their knowledge of chemistry learned throughout the entire semester. This is no gimmee. Students must be thoroughly prepared for the practical exam, not wasting even a moment of time. They plan, problem solve and, for the most part, experience a high degree of success as a result. Marks are generally higher, but is this necessarily bad? One of the unintended positive side-effects of the in-class lab is that students have more time to study for other courses that still require written final exams.

Marie Curie once wrote, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

My initial fear was that my students would not be prepared for final written exams at university. I feel confident, however, that they learn the study skills necessary to handle the predictably larger volume of content by actually learning how to study for unit tests — and this I do in an exhaustive manner. The curriculum for chemistry courses is already difficult to finish, so one huge hurdle was the amount of time the practical exam takes — up to five days. However, not having to do exam review saved me several days of time.

My biggest problem so far with a practical exam is what to do with students who miss some of the practical exam. Students are not permitted to miss even a single day of the five using this approach. To avoid this, the date is set early — and by early, I mean three months in advance — in the semester so that students have ample time to plan their exam-cycle schedule. Surprisingly, only a handful of students have ever actually missed the practical exam. Students who miss the practical exam — even for one day — are required to replace this summative evaluation with a written exam. It is impossible to avoid this unfortunate consequence because it is very difficult for both teacher and students to coordinate makeup times at the end of the year. Students who miss, however, do have the week to prepare for the final written exam. 

The replacement of a written exam with a practical exam has thus far been very successful in my classroom. If you are wanting to change but are not sure you want to take such a giant leap I encourage you to begin by replacing one written quiz or test with a practical evaluation. The replacement of a traditional pencil and paper test with a practical test is one of the few times in your teaching career that you will witness certain students actually enjoy writing a quiz, a unit test or a final exam. And who knows, such an approach may in fact help your students learn what is often predictably difficult material in a deeper, more meaningful way. They can see the reality of the chemical processes in a way that only performing a lab can offer. 

In Part 2, I will discuss the logistics of the lab final