Anatomy of a Course: The Final Exam

The final exam serves many functions. It’s a moment of assessment, of course, a relatively important one in this class at 40% of the total grade. A student writes for two hours, and you read it for fifteen minutes. If you do it right, that exchange allows you to determine whether a student has done “satsifactory” (C), “good” (B), or “excellent” (A) work. But what does it mean to “do it right?” I’m pretty sure there’s not a single perfect way to construct a final. In any case, I have experimented with different models over the years: take-home finals, oral finals, and in many courses no final at all. In recent years, however, I’ve adopted a hybrid model that I like for my intermediate “lecture” classes. I give students the long essay questions ahead of time but also have a set of shorter questions that they see for the first time during the exam itself. Here’s the final exam I gave this year:

FINAL EXAM – HIS 244 – FALL 2017


Respond to six of the following questions in answers of 1-2 paragraphs. Your grade depends not only on the quality of your answers but also on the level of difficulty of the questions you answer.


“C” level questions

  1. What about Yevtushenko’s poetry makes it characteristic of the “thaw” period in Soviet history?
  2. What was the Cuban Missile Crisis? How did it emerge from Khrushchev’s foreign policy? What was the long-term impact of the crisis upon the Cold War?
  3. Why has Vladimir Putin enjoyed high approval ratings as President of the Russian Federation?


“B” level questions

  1. What do we learn about Soviet society in the 1960s from Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir?
  2. Why did the First Chechen War begin? Why did it end?
  3. What was the Chernobyl incident? How did affect Soviet policies during Perestroika?

“A” level questions

  1. Why did corruption increase in the Brezhnev era?
  2. Name the author and source of the following quotation, and explain its importance either to the overall argument of the author or to 20th century Russian history as a whole: “New media technologies, such as cinema and radio, which had seemed so convenient for interwar dictatorship seeking to spread propaganda, turned out to be conduits of a commercial mass culture impervious to state borders.”
  3. Name the author and source of the following quotation, and explain its importance either to the overall argument of the author or to 20th century Russian history as a whole: “A truly great idea breeds great resistance. Our state has always had enemies inside and out, but the battle was never so intense as during the period of Holy Russia’s revival.”

Please answer both of the following questions in answers of at least five paragraphs

  1. A popular joke in Russia in the 1990s went “In 1991, we found out that everything they had told us about communism was false. Unfortunately, everything they told us about capitalism was true.” What developments in the 1990s made this joke (painfully) funny for many citizens? How has Russian society reacted to economic changes in the 21st century? What, if anything, has been the positive and negative influence of the communist past in this social and economic transformation? Please be specific about the economic and social changes in question.
  2. In his Nobel lecture, Joseph Brodsky claimed that the “revulsion, irony, or indifference often expressed by literature towards the state is essentially a reaction of the permanent – better yet, the infinite – against the temporary, against the finite. To say the least, as long as the state permits itself to interfere with the affairs of literature, literature has the right to interfere with the affairs of the state.” How does this quotation relate to Brodsky’s larger aesthetic and political project? Given what you’ve read over the course of the semester, do you think that other artists have shared Brodsky’s ethos? If so, how? Did these cultural efforts have any broader social or political consequences? Please be specific in your answers!

So first, let me comment on why I use the “hybrid” model of “known” essay questions and “unknown” short answer questions. From an educational perspective, the main use of the final exam is not really the writing of the exam itself but the process of review and rethinking that it prompts. I want that review to take place in two distinct ways for my students. First, I want to reinforce one of my key goals of the semester and impress on them the importance of reading (and actively comprehending) entire books. They are encouraged to use their commonplace books to review all the readings (with special attention to the second half of the course) and to meet with other students to discuss texts. The final day of the course was devoted to a student-led exam review session, in which they could bring in any questions or themes that they wanted to discuss, and I would work together with them on developing answers to those questions. In the same way, I want them to review their lecture notes and consider how I’ve constructed a narrative of Russian history over the past one hundred years.

The second distinct way that I want them to review is to think “new” integrative thoughts by giving them challenging essay questions that they can have a week to mull over and work out answers to. The Brodsky question, for instance, is not one I would give to students “cold.” The task of the question – to consider the relationship between aesthetics and politics broadly and between the authors we read and “the state” more particularly – was one that we touched on throughout the semester but that would require some time for students to come to terms with. With a week to prepare, I could reasonably expect that most of the students could do a “satisfactory” job on this question by trying to divert my attention from the fact that Brodsky confused them by talking about other authors (Bulgakov was a favorite) who had a troubled literary and personal relationship with the “state.” Many more could do a “good” job by tracing connections between, say, Bulgakov, Brodsky, and Sorokin or talking about censorship. And finally, a handful really tackled the question of what Brodsky was trying to get at with the claim that literature represented the “infinite” and that the state represented the “finite.” One of the best exam essays recalled Brodsky’s claim that aesthetics came before morals and ethics and used this to reflect on the relationship between artists and the state. In other words, this was a question that “worked.” It prompted re-reading and reflection on the part of students and allowed them to show excellence or competence depending on their lights.

A knock-on effect of questions like this is that they make assigning a grade substantially easier. It’s not that hard to sort the confused from the clueless and the insightful from the merely solid. This same desire to create clarity motivated the C/B/A structure of the short answer questions. As we all know, the dominant way that the American educational system thinks about grades is as percentages. From my perspective, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. When I began my career, I diligently assigned a number of questions, assigned each one a percentage of the total points, determined that percentage, and added them up. I grew frustrated with this calculation process. I was trapped by the tyranny of partial credit and by student convictions that this arithmetic was “objective” and good. In my view, to the contrary, as I have argued at several points in this series, teaching and learning gain meaning precisely because they are subjective processes, or rather inter-subjective ones. I experimented for a couple of years with eliminating percentages not only from exams but from the course, telling students that I would give them narrative feedback throughout the course and come to a final judgment at the end as to whether they had achieved “satisfactory,” “good,” or “excellent” work. This was a bridge too far. Students used to having a number next to their name (and knowing that number at every moment of the semester) were so disoriented by this strategy that it affected the classroom in negative ways. So my fall back position is to eliminate percentages from the exam grading process until the very end. This allows me to structure the questions differently. I tell students at the start of the course that I don’t grade by “taking points off” a presumably perfect start but by “building upward.” This is indeed what I do. For both the short answer and essay portions of the exam, I ask first “have they done a satisfactory job (with gaps and perhaps some confusion)?” If so, then they’ve hit the C level. Then, I do the same with whether they have done a good job (solid, hitting all or almost all of the key markers). Finally, I ask if they’ve shown “excellence” in some way (for instance, by developing defensible ideas that they didn’t simply recall from me or an author in the class). This gets them an A. This structure of questions ensures that all of them have to meet a certain baseline (by answering pretty easy “C” questions) and then allows them to choose the difficulty level of the other half of the questions. If they want to show excellence and tackle the hardest questions, they have that option. If those questions are a reach, they can still show a “B” level comprehension. Again, this clarifies both for me and for them their level of achievement on the exam. The arithmetic takes seconds. If essay 1 is a B, essay 2 is an A, and the short answer section is a B, I average the essays (a 90), then average the essay and short answer sections (90 and, to avoid fractions, an 86). Exam grade = 88.

Finally, a brief word about actually grading the exams. My experiences here may not be totally helpful to early career folks reading this series. I’ve been doing this a long time and probably can’t reliably think back in time to understand the hardest parts of this process for those just starting out. But maybe there are a couple of quick points to make. First, reading answers to the same question over and over again is mind-numbing, and it doesn’t get any better as the years go by. If possible, do whatever you can to make sure that each exam gets more or less the same amount of concentration and attention. Take breaks, give yourself rewards for finishing five exams, and so forth. Second, if there are ways to more efficiently read the exams, do so. Among other benefits, the less time you’re grading, the less wearied you get and the more you’ll be able to follow suggestion #1 above. Opinions differ, but one way I do this is to give very few comments on the exam itself. Final exams are not like paper drafts. Depressingly few students actually pick up their exams, much less come to talk about them with you. I mark more or less to remind myself of what I was thinking in case a student does want to talk about the exam and to telegraph to them where they were going right (with check marks) and going off the rails (with question marks).

And last, but not least, remain alive to your students as much as you can throughout the process. If there are funny malapropisms or mistakes, laugh at the language (not the student); keep a notebook of them if you like. And when they say something really smart, nod your head in approval, write a big YES! in the margin (even if they won’t read it) and appreciate the moment. If you don’t enjoy watching a 19-year old get smarter in front of your eyes, you’re in the wrong business.

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a Course, Teaching Russian History, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Anatomy of a Course: The Final Exam

  1. Svetlana Rasmussen says:

    Thank you very much for this post and the series! My TA experience grew substantially more rewarding once I adopted the grading philosophy that you describe (“building upward” to excellence). It allowed me to be more human and humane to students and gave them a tangible proof that I am on their side, even as I grade their work.

  2. Matthew Lungerhausen says:

    Thanks for sharing this! Like Ms. Rasmussen above, I have enjoyed reading all the posts in this series. I have found a lot of your assignments, syllabus ideas, and this bit on grading philosophy helpful in reflecting on my own practices. You are doing an immense service to the discipline and our colleagues by being so open your teaching. Thank you!

  3. Matthew Lungerhausen says:

    Also, I remember being asked about my “teaching philosophy” as a job candidate. I realize now, after teaching for fourteen years, that I did not really have one when I was starting out. I thought I did, but in reality I only had a half full bag of tricks and a few platitudes about teaching.

    Now I feel like I have enough experience to actually develop and articulate a teaching philosophy. I also have served on several search committees and I have argued against asking candidates for a teaching philosophy. Its better to ask them what they have taught and to ask the finalists to do a teaching demonstration with a class.

    The proof of whether a person can teach is in the act itself not in any written statement. Based on the material you have shared here, including the feedback from your students that you have share with us, you are an accomplished teacher. Nice work!

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