One mark of whether a person has learned much about a set of philosophical questions is their ability to continue their inquiry into those questions. Those of us who teach general education courses are likely to be especially concerned with instilling this ability and to make this an important objective of our teaching. After all, most students will only study philosophy once in their lives. But (we hope) they will continue to have chances to tackle philosophical questions later in life, and we'd like to think that they'll be able to do this with at least some success well after their formal encounters with philosophy are over.
I have lots of thoughts about how instill the ability to continue philosophical inquiry in students. But here I'll describe an idea I have for a final exam in a practical ethics course, intended to evaluate if students are ready to 'go on' with further inquiry.
Most academic exams are largely retrospective with respect to content, testing whether you've learned enough about what you studied. I'm trying to fashion a final exam that's at least to some degree prospective. Here's what I've settled on for now:
I'm teaching a practical ethics course (the usual suspects: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc.). Prior to the final exam, I announce that students will only have to answer questions about one of the topics we've studied in the class and that students will choose the topic they address on the final exam. I then administer a final exam along the following lines: The final will take place on a Wednesday, but one day prior, I will distribute via our CMS one article on each of the course topics. I intend for the articles to be a little more challenging than the syllabus readings, perhaps a little harder to categorize than the syllabus readings. Students are allowed to print out one of these articles and bring it to the exam, at which time they will receive one or more essay questions on that topic, with specific requirements concerning how they are to integrate the new article, etc. into their responses.
There are several things I like about this idea: First, it gives students a choice as to which topics they are evaluated on. On the whole, I tend to think that comprehensiveness is overrated, at least at the introductory level in philosophy. I'd rather see them think carefully about a problem they do care about instead of thinking superficially about several problems they don't care about. Second, it lets students engage in a bit of intentional learning: They'll have to determine which topic(s) to study most carefully and which article-topic combination based on their interests and understanding. This should motivate some thought on their part about what they have mastered and what they haven't. But lastly, it'll tell me whether students can actually tackle new philosophical ideas and arguments. They won't be entirely new, obviously, since they are linked to the course topics, and it would be unfair, I think, for it to be otherwise.
In any event, I'd appreciate any feedback on this exam format, whether you've tried such a format, what the likely student reaction will be, and so on.