Personalizing Your Final Exam

As a student, I remember the stress of preparing for final exams. I spent hours reviewing notes that spanned an entire semester because it was all “fair game.” I never had a clear sense of what content would appear on the final. Sometimes I didn’t even know what the format of the final exam would be…essay, multiple choice, or short answer.

In a coaching session last month, I had a teacher ask me how to create a final exam that complements a standards-based approach to assessing students. My suggestion was to create a personalized final exam. At first, this may sound like a big undertaking, but it has the potential to ease our students’ anxiety and make the teacher’s last week of school more manageable.

Instead of creating a monster final exam that attempts to cover every standard or aspect of the curriculum, I’d love to see teachers make time to conference with students, identify the target skills/standards they want to show development in relation to, and then the teacher provides them with a final exam that focuses on those specific skills.

The beauty of a personalized final exam is that it gives students a degree of agency over a situation where they classically have no voice or choice. Students meet with their teacher in advance of finals week to decide which skills they want to focus on and have the teacher reassess. As soon as teachers give students agency, it creates a powerful incentive for them to want to prepare for their final exam. Students no longer feel powerless. They know what to focus on as they study. Since the teacher is dedicating time to meet with students to identify the skills they want to target, students also have an opportunity to ask for help.

If teachers are only assessing a handful of skills for each student, we can limit the time it takes for kids to complete their final exam. This has the benefit of eliminating the anxiety students feel about finishing the exam in the time allotted. It also saves teachers time because they do not have to grade every question they develop for every child.

This personalized approach to final exams does require that teachers anchor their test questions and tasks in specific skills/standards so that students are answering questions that target the skills they’ve identified in their conversation with the teacher. This approach reflects two ideas that drive a lot of my work with students and teachers: 1. less is more and 2. a one size approach to any part of education is not equitable.

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Teach Students to Track How Many Words They Read Per Minute Using Voice Typing and Google Forms

As elementary students learn how to read, teachers administer reading fluency tests and listen to students read passages. During these reading fluency tests, teachers listen for speed, accuracy, and expression. Nothing can replace this formal assessment, but it’s helpful to teach students to track their words per minute between these reading fluency assessments. Tracking their words per minute can help students to appreciate that the more they practice reading a passage, the more words they will be able to read in a minute.

In a coaching session with a second-grade teacher, I suggested we try using Voice Typing in Google Documents to help students track how many words they read in a minute. I hoped that giving them the tools to track their words per minute might motivate them to stay focused on the task of reading a challenging passage.


We began by asking students to read the passage on their own first. Then we paired the students up and asked them to read their passages to each other. Once they had read their passage twice, they logged into Google Classroom to access a blank Google Document. They clicked “Tools” and selected “Voice Typing.” The grey microphone icon appeared on the left-hand side of their screens.

They set their timers for one minute and pressed the microphone icon to begin the recording. As they read the passage, Voice Typing captured their words on the Google Document. (Voice to text isn’t perfect, but it is pretty darn good!). When the timer dinged at one minute, they clicked the microphone icon to end the recording. They clicked “Tools” and selected “Word Count” to see how many words they had read in the minute that had elapsed. They entered their words per minute into a Google Form. This provided the teacher with informal data on the students’ reading speed.

The kids repeated the process of reading, recording, and reporting a second time to see if there was a change in the number of words they read in a minute. Most students were delighted that there was an increase in their words per minute on the second reading. One student asked me, “Can I try that again? I think I can do better.” Another student exclaimed, “That was fun!”

This activity put students in the driver’s seat tracking their words per minute, but it also provided the teacher with quick data they could reference between formal reading fluency assessments. This can be useful as they design lessons!

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Lockbox Challenges with Google Forms

Kids enjoy games! One way to create a collaborative challenge that feels more like a game than work is to use Google Forms to create a lockbox activity.

When coaching a group of teachers this month, we created a transitional language lockbox challenge. Groups of students worked collaboratively to figure out which transitional words fit into particular sentences then entered their answers into a lockbox to see if they were correct. Here’s how the activity worked.

  1. At one station, students were given a sheet of paper in a plastic page protector. The paper had three paragraphs that were missing transitional language.
  2. The students had a list of transitional words and phrases they could choose from to complete the blank spaces in the three paragraphs.
  3. Students worked collaboratively to complete the sentences with the correct transitional works using a small whiteboard marker to write their initial answers directly on the plastic page protector.
  4. Once they have filled in the missing language, they had to enter the words into the Google Form lockbox one at a time to see if they were correct. If they entered an incorrect answer, they had to reevaluate their choices.

I like this activity because it encourages conversation and collaboration offline before students attempt to answer the questions online.

Here are some tips for creating a lockbox activity using Google Forms.

  • Separate each question onto a separate section. This keeps students focused on one question at a time.
  • Select the “Short answer” question type.
  • Ask questions with a single correct answer to avoid confusing students.
  • Make each question “Required” and click the three dots in the lower right-hand corner and select “Validate Response.”
  • Select “Text” and “Contains” then type the correct answer. Students will not be able to move beyond the current section until they enter the correct answer.
  • Add a hint to help students who get stuck.

Here is a video tutorial if it is easier to see an example in action!

If the questions are separated by sections in the Google Form, then the group is forced to focus on one question at a time making it feel more like a game than a traditional Google Form.

I recommend that teachers give students the questions first and require that they discuss them and agree on their answers before they open their computers and attempt to unlock the Google Form lockbox. If students are required to decide on their answers before they open a device, then the devices do not impede the conversations between students, which is the most valuable part of a lockbox activity. It also eliminates the temptation to guess without thinking through the possible answers first.

Lockbox challenges are a great way to encourage collaborative practice, review for an exam, or create an escape the room type of activity without a physical box!

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