I expected the worst during finals week my first year as a teacher: a huge stack of papers to grade, frustration over revision advice not taken, late nights to meet grade submission deadlines. While I certainly had a lot to grade, what I really struggled with was unexpected: boredom at the conformity of my students’ work. Their writing was polished and it was evident that their skills had improved over the semester. But the writing lacked energy, originality, and their own voices. I found myself wondering what they had really learned.
In preparation for the next semester, I re-examined how the course learning goals might still be met while allowing students to present their learning in a more individual and authentic way. If students could tell me how they would best be able to present their learning, then maybe they would engage with the final project with more investment. And when students are invested, they spend more time, produce higher quality work, and engage in the work more deeply.
Enter, the “pitch your own final” final exam. A final exam designed to give students agency over their own learning. What I’ve detailed below is how I present Pitch Your Own Final in my Introduction to Literature course (a writing-intensive general education class offered at my university), although different iterations of this same final can be applied to courses throughout the English discipline. How it works:
A month before the end of the semester, I introduce the final exam. The guidelines are as frustratingly open-ended as they come: “Engage with at least one course concept in a new way to demonstrate what you’ve learned in this class.”
It’s important to note that I’ve scaffolded this kind of project into my course. Throughout the semester, my students have been given a little more agency over each assignment that they complete, in order to prepare for an almost instruction-less final.
The class is usually in a mild uproar at this final project. They ask question after question to try and get me to tell them what I want. I ask them to tell me what I want. This makes them furious. They beg for examples. I learned early with this kind of project to not give them examples (a practice I otherwise offer in my class) because what many produce will be a near copy of that example. I ask them to trust me, as they’ve done all semester, that they’ll get much more out of the project if they’re in control.
Students then develop pitches for their final projects. This is a critical step. It allows me the opportunity to give students feedback about their initial direction. I can jump in early to make sure students are either doing enough work for a final project or not too much work (I’ve had students pitch me ideas that would turn into a book if executed as they describe). What I usually receive is a mix of analytical and creative work, synthesized together to demonstrate the student’s evolved understanding of what literature is.
On the last day of the semester, students present a portion of their work to the class, and the results are diverse and astounding. I’ve had students examine literary translation through dance choreography, create video games, and one even live-coded music. They’re invested in the work because they’re allowed to take what they’ve learned and connect it to a mode that they already know (either in the form of their major, hobbies, or a medium they’re familiar with). Many, as they present, tell the class that they discovered that they knew much more about literature than they thought and that it relates to their own interests in relevant and unexpected ways.
I step out of the classroom that day with arms full of large, weird textual/visual/analytical projects and an inbox full of links that will lead me to a new and surprising project and perspective. I’m looking forward to grading, at this point, because with each new project, I get insight into a completely new, non-conforming perspective.
Quick end note: As you can imagine, I’ve implemented this type of final in courses in which I’ve had the freedom and luxury to design the class myself. While I’ve used this final to meet departmental and university-level learning outcome requirements, I acknowledge that assigning a final exam like this is a luxury afforded to those with complete creative teaching control.