I've been thinking about how this model might be applied in more bookish subjects. Wouldn't it be possible to examine the students' mastery of a sociological theory, or a historical period, or a literary corpus, by sitting them down in front of a computer for four hours with the task of writing, say, 8 individual paragraphs 27 minutes at a time? Or perhaps give them only 5 paragraphs to write. The first half hour is spent planning out their essay. They then submit one paragraph every half hour. Finally, they are given an hour to revise all five. They can be graded on both the individual paragraphs and the full composition, each of which shows something in particular.
By limiting the resources they can bring with them to the exam (a small set of paper books for example) it would be very easy to detect patchwriting and plagiarism. Their essays could be automatically run through a plagiarism checker comparing them against exactly the books they were allowed to bring with them. This would allow us to make an important concession to proponents of patchwriting: it would now be possible to stop treating it as a "crime". Even plagiarism could be treated simply as a poor scholarship. If you submit five paragraphs that are simply transcribed from the books you were allowed to bring with you, you don't get kicked out of school but you do get an F. Just as a pianist would if she didn't play the piece she had been assigned but openly played a CD of Glenn Gould's performance instead.
If this set-up were implemented, there would be absolutely no ambiguity about what they had learned to do during the semester. And it would be obvious to the students what they have to become good at. Now, you can give them all kinds of more "interesting" assignments throughout the year, and you can give them as much feedback on them as you like, including an indication of the sort grade they might receive ... if it counted. But this will work best if you don't let course work during the term contribute to the grade. It's just practice, training. You tell them how well they're doing, but you only, finally, judge their performance at the end.
Let's construct an easy example. Imagine a one-semester course on three of Shakespeare's tragedies: Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. The students are to bring the text of each play, and the collection of essays (perhaps a casebook) that was assigned in the course. At the start of the exam they are given a recognisable question, perhaps not quite as familiar (from the lectures) as "Why didn't Hamlet kill Claudius immediately?" but something like that—a question that reveals ignorance if its relevance is not immediately apparent to them. It's the sort of question that after a semester of Shakespearean tragedy they should have a good answer to. Not something they're supposed to be able to come up with an answer to, but actually have one for going into the examination. For each play, in the context of its particular set of interpretations (in the casebook), there will many different possible questions. The trick is that they don't know exactly what will be asked of them, nor of which play. All they can do to prepare is to understand the play and its interpretations. And
they can get their prose in shape. They know they will need to quickly and efficiently (in thirty minutes) plan out a five-paragraph essay. They will then have to compose five paragraphs in a row, a half hour at a time. (I've discussed the technical issues with the IT department at my university and it would be a simple matter to set up a computerised exam like this.) Then they'd have an hour to polish it. Students who are capable of a such a performance have acquired not just valuable knowledge about Shakespeare's tragedies, but also a set of writing skills that will serve them (if they keep them in shape) for the rest of their lives.
And such assignments would be easy to grade. You would be able to determine at a glance what the students are capable of, and how well they understand the play. As, Bs, Cs, and Ds would be very easy to assign. Fs would result from radically incomplete or ignorant attempts, or, like I say, plagiarism. In four hours a student would have been able to provide a completely unambiguous demonstration of their understanding of the course material. And given only a few minutes per assignment (time could be saved by grading one of out of the five paragraphs at random + the whole composition), a teacher would not only be able to painlessly complete the grading, but also get a good sense of how effective they are as teachers.
I'd love to hear what readers of this blog think of this idea. I really think this is how we should do things.