A Research Focus in a Final Exam

Focusing on Research:

As a trained librarian, my primary focus is often research. I brought that perspective into my most recent challenge: teaching Individuals and Societies Year 3. Since November, I’ve been teaching two sections of the course, and I’ve learned more than I could ever put into words. The most recent success, though, was the final exam.

A few months ago, I participated in an MYP Chat about Assessment that expressed several questions about the Criterion B in I/S and how different teachers assess it. There were more questions than opinions, more uncertainty about this unfamiliar Criterion than ideas about it. With that in mind, I wanted to share my own recent success with an assessment about this Criterion.

When I gave the mid-term exam in December, I hadn’t been teaching long. My lack of familiarity with writing long exams for eighth graders led me to adapt a previously used exam, full of reading and writing tasks. While it covered the content of the course, it used only three of the four criteria, leaving out Criterion B completely, and focusing almost entirely on Criteria A and C. I noticed that many of the students became frustrated with this model, possibly because all of them are English as a Second Language learners. With almost 50 students, about half of them in Language Acquisition, I wasn’t certain that this was an accurate test of their abilities. They put in the effort, but the results weren’t favorable. I was determined to make an exam that tested the skills that we had covered, and one that would suit their language skills better.

The class focused on Migration and Human Rights in the spring, with an emphasis on interview skills, political cartoons/visual literacy, and research. During the human rights unit, students wrote their first academic research paper, presenting different arguments about a human rights topic of their choice. Many students chose women’s rights, or LGBT rights, or a historical look at the atomic bomb. It was a long process, focusing on several elements of the research cycle: writing a research question, citing, taking notes on sources, using library resources, and outlining their work. If I could do it again, I would also have focused more on evaluating sources, but we took time to focus on paraphrasing and plagiarism instead.

I worked with the Language Acquisition teacher, who was doing a similar unit, and we encouraged students to use the same topic (though rarely the same resources) in both classes to increase their comprehension and skills. This was extremely successful; the work that I received from the Language B students had more depth and critical thought than I had previously seen. With covering the material in more than one class, especially in a class that met twice as often as mine, they were able to dig deeper into the information and the concepts.

The final exam needed to be engaging, and needed to assess the different parts of the research process that we had covered. I didn’t want to rely completely on reading and writing, both for my students and for myself. I wanted to provide opportunities for them to utilize the skills they had practiced in class, using all four criteria. Plus, since the entire class never covered one topic, it couldn’t be based on content alone. We worked on inquiry projects throughout the semester, and while certain topics overlapped, there was never anything that we covered in depth as a class.

Here’s what I came up with:

The entire exam centered on protest. I chose the topic because it was an option for their human rights paper, which meant that many of them did preliminary research on it. The information I used was available equally to them all. Many of them knew about the Hong Kong protests because of our location, and our own country has had some recent turmoil that impacted their daily lives.

I created a packet of information about the topic for them to use throughout their exam. The information packet included two perspectives, a pro and con side to protest. I adapted the text from Issues and Controversies, a debate database that we subscribe to, using the ideas without the complex vocabulary and excess text. The teacher I worked with read it over as well, to ensure that there was nothing too challenging. There were descriptions of four protests: Women’s Suffrage, Vietnam Protests, Occupy Wall Street, and the Umbrella Revolution. The packet also included historical images and political cartoons about those same protests. I included the full list of Year 3 Criteria as well. The information packet was separate from the student answer sheet for ease.

The first part was comprehension from the text, marked on Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. There were six questions asking about what they read in the text. This is common in many tests, I find, and I asked them to add their own ideas throughout for comprehension.

The second part involved Research Questions, marked on Criterion B: Investigating. It followed a similar format to what we had done in class. They drafted a few research questions, then evaluated their best one with an explanation. They were also tasked with figuring out what criterion matched what they were doing, and how they could succeed, to allow the criteria to be part of their process.

The third part was a paraphrasing exercise, marked on Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. They chose two paragraphs (very short paragraphs) from the pro and con side to paraphrase in their own words. I marked this on Criterion A because paraphrasing, to me, means understanding and explaining in a new way, to demonstrate your awareness by adding different information to someone else’s ideas. This was similar to exercises done in both English and Humanities classes.

The fourth part was an analysis of political cartoons. They had to choose one of the political cartoons to describe and analyze using their knowledge and the information from the text. There were short answer questions about the cartoon that they had to answer with specific details, graded with Criterion C: Communication. I marked their other political cartoon assignment with communication, so I wanted to keep it consistent.

The fifth part was arguments and critical thinking. They were asked to create an outline that took information from the text and photos to plan out three arguments for an essay. This was graded with Criterion D: Critical Thinking.

The sixth and final part was a research reflection, graded with Criterion B: Investigating. They reflected on the process of research with guidance from the questions, for the entire semester. Every assignment I gave required research, so they looked at different assignments and how they compared to one another.

As I gave the exam, and then graded the exam, I was quite happy with the results. There were some questions the students didn’t expect, especially with the outline. The style didn’t quite match what I had given them in class, even if it was a similar concept. The questions for the political cartoons gave them some trouble as well, again, because they weren’t expecting the style of the question. Overall, though, most students were able to successfully answer the questions and demonstrate their skills.

Upon reflection, though, there are a few things that I would change.

  1. The exam was almost too long, leaving some students just short of finishing. I would streamline some of the questions and make sure that the majority of students could finish on time, perhaps by clarifying the instructions.
  1. The political cartoon questions were too similar to one another, which created confusion. The task they did in class was annotating the cartoon, and I would go back to that. The instructions also needed to be clarified for more understanding.
  1. I would have liked to add a planning or interview piece in some way. Since they were working on protest, what other sources could they try? What would they look for? Or, if they had the opportunity, what interview questions would they ask? That would add a richer research feel and be able to assess both Criterion B and Criterion C.
  1. I gave too many choices. With the four different protests, there was too much information for them to sift through. Even though that was partially my intention, given the amount of information one has to sift through in every Google search, the time frame was too short for so many options.

Overall, I was content with the exam, and proud of the work that my students accomplished. I’m grateful for the opportunity to try something new, learn from it, and share from it. Hopefully, my experience will lead others to interesting reflections.

Article by Kelsey Hedrick
Image by: Kelsey Hedrick

2 thoughts

  1. Very interesting post!
    It is challenging to have Criterion B in a final exam and yet it is most necessary. I liked the focus on the EAL students. This criterion does allow for a skill set that transcends language fluency to some extent.

    And I liked the topic you chose – protests.
    While you were doing this in class, how did you divide the content to be covered in the two classes – English and I&S?
    I teach English and am interested to know how you conducted this unit.
    Could you share the resources and the final tasks and some exemplars?


    1. Thanks for your comment, Mayura.
      It was quite the learning experience, I must say. However, it was great to work with the English department, especially since I&S only had class every other day, while their classes were daily. I was able to team up with the LA teacher because her unit was Human Rights as well. We didn’t necessarily divide content, just shared what we were doing and backed each other up.

      The students for her class were inquiring into a human rights abuse with the product of a poster and information sharing in mind, and mine were inquiring into the same topic for the research paper format. The resources that the read and paraphrased for her were sources for their paper, and the resources that they used for me were useful for their background knowledge. The students were able to utilize their knowledge in both classes, and dig deep into the topic.

      For the unit itself, we worked with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, an inquiry into serious human rights abuses in history, and then an inquiry and research paper into a human rights topics of their choice. I’m happy to share some resources!
      Thank you again for your words!

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