Digital Midterm

Blue sky with clouds


Stephanie Rosen

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In the week or two before Spring Break, it’s customary for lab chit-chat to turn towards what we look forward to on break. This spring, as my colleagues told me how they anticipated getting out of town or getting some writing done, I told them that I was looking forward to my students’ midterm. “I’ve never given a midterm,” was the repeated response. Before this semester, neither had I. So I’ve decided to write here about why I gave the midterm and how I used the Lab resources to enhance it.

The midterm I gave was a standard open-book essay exam. Students were required to write one essay in which they advocated a position, engaged the position in one foundational article, and incorporated three additional sources from our reading list. The essay prompt was available to them from day one (it was printed in the syllabus) and students were allowed to refer to the required readings, as well as any notes they made in their course-pack, during the exam. (The complete Digital Midterm lesson plan is available on the DWRL site.) 

One major reason behind my midterm was my own curiosity. I often incorporate in-class writing so students have a low-stakes context in which to explore their ideas through writing and to synthesize major ideas, concepts, and connections of the course. I believe that these writing assignments allow students to grasp major trends in the course and that they better prepare them to move forward with the material. But I never get to see the writing assignments. Part of the “low-stakes context” is the promise that students don’t have to turn the work in — or show it anyone, although they’re often asked to speak afterwards, using the writing as an aid to their spoken response.

The midterm gave me a chance to see how students were synthesizing ideas, grasping major trends, and understanding the course concept. My curiosity was satisfied. Students put texts together in interesting and unexpected ways, using several readings to support their own arguments, or using one text to support their reading of another. Furthermore, they consistently demonstrated that they understood the basic argument of the course, “Health Rhetoric”: that “health” is a problematic term in argument because rhetors agree on its value but not on its definition. And students supported (or complicated) that argument in a variety of fascinating ways.

Another reason I gave the midterm was to let students craft a written argument earlier in the semester. In my syllabus, students complete several writing assignments — a summary, a rhetorical analysis, a synthesis, a bibliography, a proposal — before they finally write a persuasive argument in their final paper. However, I often encourage students to argue for their positions in class discussion, and I wanted to give them a chance to do that in writing before the semester’s final weeks.

As I fielded questions the week before the midterm, I realized that the prompt was confusing to students, precisely because it asked them to write an original persuasive argument — something they had not done before. They needed extra explanation and encouragement to employ the rhetorical figures and appeals we had been analyzing. But that explanation and encouragement paid off in their writing. They made strong cases for their positions, using the appeals and figures they had studied appropriately and to great effect.

Although my midterm was similar to every essay exam I’ve proctored as a Teaching Assistant or taken as a student, I modified the template in one important respect: no Blue Books. I had students write their essays on the Lab computers. They were therefore able to revise, or at least edit, on the fly and submit more polished, better organized writing. This system also eliminated the grading bias that I know I’m subject to when I read a barely legible student essay. Every essay looked the same. I believe that this made the midterm grades more objective. And it certainly made me better enjoy reading them over my Spring Break. 

On the day of the exam, students arrived in class to find a printed midterm prompt in front of each lab computer. They logged on and opened the word processor (opening other programs or using a web browser would result in a failing grade). And they printed and stapled their finished exam essay for me before they left. Some students will need accommodations or prefer Blue Books. I had a private conversation with a student who has a learning disability; I gave them the option to write the essay by hand (they chose to do so). I also made an announcement that anyone with a legitimate reason for preferring a Blue Book instead of the word processor could see privately me to make that request. In my class, no one did. 

Overall, the midterm was a success. The grades were high, the essays were interesting and well-written, and the students took the process very seriously. I didn’t realize, when I included the exam on my syllabus, how much a midterm would mean to the undergrads. I got the sense, however, that the inclusion of a midterm gave my course more weight in their minds. On the one hand, it took up more of their study time and gave them more anxiety. On the other, the studying and anxiety led to quality writing, though which they came to a fuller understanding of what the course is about and why it is important. This is what made the midterm most worthwhile. By synthesizing ideas through writing in a high-stakes context, my students “got it” fairly early on in the semester. And having done that, I’d like to think they especially enjoyed their Spring Break.


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