How to Design the Most Interesting Midterm in the World

This week we presented our midterm projects to the Do Good, Better class. We were divided into groups of three and asked to map out the key players, the flow of power, the root causes, the successes, and the gaps of a local problem.

I think I can echo the opinions of the entire class when I say this midterm has by far been the best I have ever taken, so I have decided to use my experience to outline some best practices for today’s educators. According to my experience, a great midterm should have the following components:

HANDS-ON LEARNING

I loved that this midterm was so experiential. We didn’t just choose a problem and do some online research. We researched online and then went out into the city and interviewed various stakeholders. Since my group chose to focus on the problem of underperformance of Latino youth in Utah Valley, we interviewed social workers, librarians, community leaders, Latino families, school counselors, teachers, and other key players. Getting out into the community and having real conversations with people gave us the opportunity to really immerse ourselves in the issue and to get a better idea of what role we can play in the solution.

Take-away: Whatever your area of study, make your midterms and coursework highly experiential. Get us out of the classroom and set us to work!

LOOSE GUIDELINES

In addition to incorporating hands-on learning, the midterm was somewhat unstructured. We were given an initial explanation and were shown an example, but then we were set free to grapple with the issues and to develop our own way of mapping the root causes and the various components of the problem. I did not feel pressured to make my work fit a certain mold or to get everything exactly right the first time we set out to gather information. The open project guidelines showed me that our instructors trust us and have confidence in our abilities to understand the issues, and their trust gave me the self-confidence I needed to dig deeper and to do the work. Loose midterm guidelines allow for exploration, deeper learning, and the development of self-confidence as we struggle to understand and complete our assignments.

 Take-away: When you design your midterm, leave some elements up to the students’ interpretation. Express confidence in their abilities, and encourage them to look at the assignment from new angles.

INTER-DISCIPLINARY GROUP WORK

After the explanation of the assignment, we were placed in small, interdisciplinary teams and set loose to get to work. I am a marketing major/communications minor and my two teammates are studying sociology/international development and communication studies/psychology/international development. We all have different personalities and talents, and I appreciate the insights and the diverse angles each team member brings to the table. Seeing James’ and Dane’s way of approaching the problem gave me new ideas and perspectives. I also loved seeing the way the other teams approached and mapped their problems as I watched their presentations.

Take-away: Make your midterms group-based to give your students the opportunity to develop teamwork skills. Do your best to make the teams cross-functional and to expose your students to various schools of thought.

CREATIVE ELEMENTS

Lastly, the Do Good, Better midterm was creative—in traditional and non-traditional ways. After doing our background research, we were asked to use a whiteboard to somehow visually represent what we had found. I’m not the best artist, but I enjoyed to opportunity to explore and test different ways of visually mapping the problem. The act of drawing (however crudely) the elements of the problem also forced me to think creatively about the relationships between the key players, about the underlying causes, and about potential solutions.  In addition, seeing the visual representations of the issues of the other groups helped me to remember and internalized their findings.

Take-away: Build a midterm that includes some aspect of creativity. Whether that comes in the form of fine-tuned artistic skills or simply creative problem solving is your choice, but make sure your students are encouraged to be creative with their work.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity this midterm gave me to learn and develop, and I think every discipline can benefit from incorporating similar midterms into their courses.

So in conclusion, here is my plea to America’s university educators: Let us explore. Let us create. Let us make mistakes. Let us feel your confidence. And then sit back and watch us grow.  

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