Wednesday, April 12, 2017


These musings about an ideal (or better) college are a nice way of keeping things in perspective. I have already written about the sort of curriculum I'd like to see and how the grades should be distributed. But what about the form of the examinations themselves? First, I think there should be both oral and written exams. Some should have very little preparation and some should have a great deal. That is, students should demonstrate an ability to produce a thoroughly researched and carefully planned presentation (again, both in speech and writing) but they should also demonstrate extemporaneous mastery. As before, let's assume they are taking three courses per semester. That means they will have six exams every year.

In the last year, they should submit some sort of thesis that would be defended orally. Here all their skills would be brought together and count for maybe one half of that year's overall grade. Other than that, here a six exams I'd like to see:

1. Research paper. The student is given a general topic and is expected to narrow it to a problem that can be solved using the resources of a library. The length of the paper would increase from year to year, but there would be a consistent requirement to write well-formed prose paragraphs that present a coherent argument.

2. Take-home essay. The students would be given a limited amount of time (24, 48 or 72 hours) to answer a question pertaining to the course.

3. Written exam. Again, this is a familiar sort of performance. The students would arrive in a classroom with a specified set of materials (books, notes, etc.) and would be given a question to answer in an essay form. They would be given, say, four hours to plan and compose an essay. This would test their actual writing ability as well as their mastery of the course material.

4. Oral presentation. Students would prepare an oral presentation of a specified length. Essentially a short lecture. Afterwards, the examiner would ask questions to probe their knowledge.

5. Oral examination. Students would simply arrive at the exam and answer questions put to them by a panel of examiners. Their only preparation would be the course itself (they would receive no question in advance).

6. Debate. Students would debate each other on issues related to the course. The grade would be given on the individual performance.

There's really nothing new about any of those exams. But there's something about bringing them together like this that, at least for me, clarifies the competence that could be imparted by a "liberal arts" education. To pass these exams, students would need to be able to think, speak and write. In addition to their reading, preparing for these exams simply means building these competences through continuous practice—of thinking, talking and writing.

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