I’m wishing I was at Computers & Writing right now, but yesterday was final exams for the junior-year writing courses I teach. Three and a half hours to answer a broad writing question that offered the opportunity to cover very nearly all of the readings in the course, with essays written and submitted on laptops. Big chunk of the final grade, which I don’t like, but the ideology of the need for a final exam in all subjects is something that will not go away easily here.
I coached the process as much as I could beforehand:
limit your sources and know your sources. Take interpretive reading notes. Anticipate the scant types of essay prompt that might embrace all course readings. Write out potential possible theses. Lock in a significant portion of initial wide-open generative writing — like, twenty to thirty minutes if you struggle with it — as soon as you read the prompt, and give yourself time to seek possible structuring strategies after that, before you start architecting the essay. Save yourself time to proofread, and use the read-aloud exam rooms if you like. Proofread backwards if you know you need it. Read your final paragraph carefully: people figure things out as they write. If find you figured things out as you wrote, do some revision by cutting and pasting between your first and final paragraphs.
I didn’t teach course material the last class, but instead made them rehearse it. I made them summarize and paraphrase it and anticipate, in writing, the possible questions the exam prompt might ask about the arc of the course. I modeled the most calculatedly complex two- and three-part questions I could and demanded to know what sources they would cite to support their arguments in response to such questions. I made them talk on their feet.
I hope it helps. It’s a tough thing, to compress a semester into four pages or so. How many sources do I use? How many is too few, or too many? How obvious should my structure and thesis be if my portfolio is going to be group-graded?
Yesterday was three and a half hours, writing, for the students. Fourteen hours for me, and back again today for calibration, group-grading of threshold portfolio exams, and adjudication of possible course failures. Not a happy Friday, and it’s as high-stakes as it gets: Cadets incur a five-year service obligation on the first day of junior year. If they flunk out during junior or senior year, they’re often either recycled or else cycled into a non-promotable position in the enlisted corps for a five-year haul.
So I’ll ask you, readers: what are the best strategies you offer to students for coping with timed high- stakes writing situations? What do you tell your discipuli when they have to prep for written exams?