It’s only the beginning of the fourth week of classes, but I had scheduled an exam for today. My advanced undergraduate/graduate plant diversity course consists mostly this year of undergraduates rather than graduate students, and this led me to change the course considerably. One of those changes was to add an exam near the beginning of the course. I begin this course with a set of lectures on a few basic concepts (phylogeny reconstruction, homology, novelty, inferences of evolutionary time, and historical biogeography [because I am running behind in my lectures as usual the latter topic will need to wait until the next, post-exam, lecture]) that we will use throughout the semester to comprehend the diversity of plants. The first exam was scheduled to coincide with the end of the basic concepts lectures and to serve as a punctuation point before we begin to explore various lineages of plants.
I began to write the exam last Friday and finished it yesterday afternoon. There were exams, especially for introductory biology courses that I taught earlier in my career, that I might have spent four days writing—those were the challenging multiple-choice exams in which students would need to work to select among the alternatives. My first exam for this fall’s plant diversity course took a few hours to write; it’s not too long—only six questions. I had intended to have only five questions but a couple of them seemed too simple. And, I suppose, the questions aren’t really questions. I have been using for this course statements from the botanical literature—snatched from context—and have been asking the students to evaluate them using what they’ve learned in the course. The quotations I use come sometimes from quirky or esoteric pieces that have been published in recent years but most are from older literature published in the first half of the 20th century, when our knowledge of biological diversity was much skimpier than now. I enjoy reading through old botanical texts and monographs to find the snippets to use for exams—they are oddly contemporary in the dilemmas the authors present.
As a test I ask the students to evaluate and interpret the quoted statements on the exam in a thoughtful and cogent fashion using the materials from my lectures. I ask them to compose well-written answers and emphasize that clarity and sense are important aspects of grading. I always look forward to reading the students’ responses on these exams to see how each thought about the issues posed by the snippets I’ve extracted from the literature as well as to see how each has understood the lectures and reconstructed them to respond to the issues of the test.
I distributed the exam in class this morning. A student suggested that a week would be a reasonable amount of time to complete it, and the other students seemed to agree. I encouraged them to discuss with each other the quotations on the exam, their meaning and interpretation, and how they related to the content of course; in those discussions, I hope, will be the next phase of learning. There is learning also, I hope, when the individual students begin to structure and formalize responses for the exam.