[He] walked into class the day of the final exam and said, “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he walked out.
The result, according to Cowen?
I would say that the variance of the test scores probably increased! I don’t recall if I ever did that again for a whole exam but most of my exams do that for at least one question. It’s the question where you learn the most about the student.
With exam season now upon us, I’ve been mulling this over. I suspect the Birkbeck exam scrutiny panel wouldn’t like Cowen’s approach, but I think it could have real value. It would at least be a nice change from the usual drudgery of wading through 10 or 20 or even 50 answers to exactly the same question.
More to the point, it led me to think about some of the more unusual exam questions I’ve encountered over the years. The only one that strikes me as unconventional is one from Cambridge a few years ago for the early modern British social and economic history survey module:
Were any women and men practising witchcraft in early modern England?
Although it might not seem especially strange to a historian of the period, I suspect that laypeople would be alarmed to hear that Cambridge students were being examined on the existence of witches.
Do you have a favourite (or hated) history exam question?
[Update (15/05/13): Kate Beaton, creator of ‘Hark, a vagrant’, offers an Elizabeth I quiz and a 1066 quiz that include such key questions as ‘Whither the Armada?’ and ‘How much Conquering is too much Conquering?’]