Today my foundations in education class took their midterm:

My classes are already disorienting for students, especially our high-achieving types we attract at a selective liberal arts college, because I do not grade any assignments—although I must give a final grade in the courses.

Just before this midterm, in fact, I returned the group grade sheets that had scores of √+, √, and √-, prompting one student to ask before the exam just what grade those are.

In this course, I do not have a traditional synoptic text, but I do assign two powerful books—Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap and Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

Gorski’s book is the first half of the course, and Emdin’s, the second; but both are explored through a book club format in which students meet in small groups four or five times over the half of the semester the book is assigned to discuss as they read.

They submit written reflections, but there are no tests, except that we use Gorski’s book for our midterm experience.

I say “experience” since the midterm I now use is a discussion, a collaborative assessment.

All students must submit before the exam period four or five talking points from Gorski’s book, noting page numbers, quotes, key ideas, and possibly connecting these with other aspects of the class such as their tutoring field work or readings connected to the topics of the course.

Then during the exam period, students have small group discussions for about 15-20 minutes before we move to a whole-class discussion, all the while I am eaves dropping only.

I then use the final 7-10 minutes to debrief about the entire low-stakes reading experience and the unusual exam format.

Since I have been doing this now for several years, some key patterns have developed.

First, and I believe important to stress, despite not being graded or tested, virtually all the students actually read the book, and then the discussions are always animated and detailed.

Students today and in the past stressed that the low-stakes (no grades, no tests) helped make the reading and discussion richer.

Next, and related, the exam itself becomes a learning experience; students have greater understanding of the material after the exam than from preparing for the exam.

In a low-stakes collaborative exam setting, students who prepare well can feel confident they will have an opportunity to succeed—unlike the anxiety that occurs when students do study intensely but find the test itself unlike what they have prepared.

Of course, and we discussed this, some negative consequences do come with low-stakes collaborative assessment such as this class discussion.

One of the most complex is how we honor very limited ways for students to be engaged—talking aloud. Introverted or self-conscious students are at a disadvantage in these “on stage” activities.

The two ways I address that is having each student send in talking points and starting with small-group discussions in which virtually all students do feel comfortable participating.

Another problem is helping students overcome their natural anxiety about not being graded since they have depended on that process for many years of schooling.

I also address that by telling students they may any time and as often as needed meet with me in order to discuss what their grade would be in the course if I were grading.

Finally, since students run the entire exam discussion, we run the risk of misinformation being shared without any real mechanism to address; however, over the years, this has rarely happened, and when it has, I simply come back to it in a later class sessions.

At first, the class discussion exam was an experiment, but now, it is a staple of my courses that has proven time and again to be one of the best days in any course I teach.