My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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programming an exam, teaching theory

My students’ final exam is due tomorrow. I’m actually quite proud of the design of this exam because it plays on every aspect of new media, even in the design. First, it’s combinatorial. Students write an essay for each artifact that they studied, choose two readings, two frameworks and one insight, write a question and answer it. It’s not like most essay exams because it requires so much creativity and piecing together all that they learned. Yet, it will show what they’re passionate about and help us see which readings mattered to them and which frameworks worked. Not only will it help us evaluate the students, it will let us evaluate the course itself. Conveniently, it’s also something that can be done in takehome fashion without too much worry about cheating (because goddess knows i never want to prosecute another cheating case ever again).

The biggest problem i’m learning as students ask me questions is that they do not really know how to engage theoretical frameworks in an essay. In trying to explain this to them, i discovered a good method (which was recently confirmed by a friend who uses the same method). Tell students to imagine having a conversation with an author or authors about a subject. Ask them to imagine how that conversation would go, how they would offer different insights in the dialogue. Students have a tendency to treat texts from an external perspective, as though they just have to quote things verbatim. It’s much more productive when they can think about how a theorist would deal with an issue and this results in much more interesting responses.

Students’ exams are starting to pour in which is a bit terrifying. There are 60 students, 4 essays each and each essay is 500-1000 words. Plus, there are 12 final projects to grade. By the end of tomorrow, i need to have semester-long grades for all students. Teaching has given me a new respect for professors. I used to bitch about exams and essays but i didn’t even consider how much work grading is. Luckily, the combinatorial final will mean that each essay will be new and interesting and i suspect that i’ll learn a lot about new media from my students tomorrow.

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3 comments to programming an exam, teaching theory

  • joe

    Man o’ man, do I know how you feel… I’ve TA’d for classes with 150, 300 and 800 students in them here at Cal.

    Past about 150 students, there is not really a practical way to grade this individually… so you’re doing very good work, d.

    I recall grading a short-answer final exam in a class of 300… it took eight of us 14 hours to grade the exam!

    Good luck!

  • kevin

    As a student in your class, I personally do not like the design of the exam…I feel that although its “creative,” its simply too intellectually lazy. Create your questions, and devise your own answers? If the class wasn’t intellectually, culturally, or absurdly stimulating, how can I be motivated to do the final? (So begins the rant…I can’t help it :)) And I question the motivation of other students who used this final as a “academic opportunity” to impress their professors, even if they’v never stepped a foot in the class, or collaborated in their “design teams.”

    Moreover, I still have issues with the “technocratic” bent of this class, with all of its promise of “sociality” and “creativity”…the extra credit questions require some basic knowledge of computation and programming. As easy as LOGO is for some children and users with a basic understanding of programming (Papert will tell you that it requires constant practice and supervision), it doesn’t work for everyone ( I HIGHLY recommend you read Todd Oppenheimer’s book The Flickering Mind). New media should be more than computation and programmability! Heck, my girlfriend, a computer programmer, could not help me enough during the midterm, and the final. I simply was not born to program (but I can build stuff with Playdoh!) I struggled and cursed the dreaded language!

    I can just see the react to this post now 🙂

    I hate to pour the rain down on the exam, and on the glee of reading papers on “new media”… and I admire the work that and the professors, the GSIs , and you have done (thanks for the GREAT advice btw)but this class has been one of the most underwhelming in my academic experience. Frankly, I’m glad the nightmare is over. Future students of new media…beware! 🙂

    All apologies. I’m running on 3 hours of sleep, and a need to fry my brain with Star Wars. Good night.

  • Kevin – we’ve already discussed this, but i’m sorry that this class was not fun for you. As you also also know, not everyone shared your opinion or had as difficult a time with their group. The exam is an opportunity to show what you’ve individually learned about the material. It is undoubtedly about impressing professors by showing that you’ve actually worked with the information you were given all semester. That’s the economy of college.

    As for the extra credit, yes, it was a programming question for one extra point. You will notice that nothing concerning programmability was required in the final even though that is a core component of the class. Thus, of course your girlfriend couldn’t help you – it was about the material you knew, not about computer science. This was done so that students who struggled with that aspect could show their talents in other forms. New Media doesn’t need to be technocratic but it fundamentally includes technology. And yes, people who do not value technology will not enjoy new media.