Scrap the Final Exam

I spent a week experiencing final projects and then one night monitoring a final exam.  No doubt about it , the age-old final exam where the work of the semester is reviewed and tested is passé.  Having teams of students work on a project and present a strategic plan for some media platform or idea, for a business start up, or  a non-profit project clearly is the way to go.

If we want students to learn deeply there is no doubt that semester focused final projects bring all the ideas of a semester into a focused close that stretches students in ways that the Medieval-era academics—who invented the idea of the University—never thought about.

Pedagogy has always been a science that intimidates me.  But experimentation at  UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence  has discovered that engaging students can advance learning.  Peer learning and team interaction are tools the Center encourages professors use in the classroom.  The Center stresses the idea that practical, hands on, project-learning deepens the intellectual process. When students work in teams rather than singularly in a library setting, they master the skills and remember the concepts.

Journalism and communication has always been about doing.  To learn to write one must write.  To learn to report one must report  To do strategic communication one must strategize.  For years some called journalism simply a craft and there were debates about its intellectual core.  To have pedagogy underline the experiential power of learning is powerful.

And to experience that learning was more than powerful, it was simply exciting.

In our Advertising top level course, JOMC 491.6 Market Intelligence, that Knight Chair JoAnn Sciarrino teaches, I watched as the semester-long experience in brand positioning culminated in a face off between 5 teams of students who had surveyed, analyzed, researched and strategized about how to create a five year plan for our own School of Journalism and Mass Communication that would position the school for tomorrow. Not only were the presentations impressive – from well-conceived and creative PowerPoint’s and videos that would visualize the ideas for a brand – but the students’ poise, confidence, articulation, and salesmanship was jaw dropping.  These weren’t young students trying to impress a teacher with their final project, these were young men and women ready to take on a job and argue for a strategy.

They sounded both job ready and life prepared.

Our Visiting Professor Merrill Rose focused her PR Campaigns JOMC 434 class on creating a national strategy for a client that is San Francisco based and with  whom the class interacted since August.  Rose, a full time Public Relations executive, worked with one of the grantees of her prestigious foundation client to bring real world questions to her students and real world results to the client.   The group of young woman created a complicated Prezi presentation that broke down the dilemma for the non-profit education group and made options simple.   I watched the young women, dressed as professionals, present the strategy in a dynamic and personable way,.  They argued for a value proposition that could advance the non-profit in ways this communication director could never have advanced on is own.  His face changed from the client helping students in a final project, to a professional who realized he was the recipient of great ideas he could build on.

And then there was ReeseNewsLab.  Five  groups pitched new ideas for journalism to a crowded room of skeptics and peers.  The ideas had to be bold and out of the box, and have the possibility of finding a financial figure.  A prison newsletter to engage prisoners in opportunities for their future.  A digital news service that paid readers. A magazine with long form investigative articles on Chapel Hill for the I-Pad.

Students are not students when they are in front of the classroom presenting.    They are professionals in the making.  And they have not simply learned what a professor wanted them to learn—they have reached  past what a professor might have conceived.  They have made the ideas deeply felt, the challenges deeply thought about and the learning forever – not simply for the test.

Scrap those final exams.  Give a final project.

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