WIZ 301: Defense Against the Dark Arts, or, how universal design improves our teaching


Dump the blue books!

The always-thoughtful David Perry of How Did We Get Into This Mess and on Twitter @Lollardfish) has given his last blue-book, in class, timed exam.  Those of you who know his writing will not be surprised that he’s doing this because of the inequities and exposure in-class exams mean for students with disabilities:

I’ve been inching away from the blue book for years, but it’s time to go cold turkey and match my praxis to my principles. Whatever pedagogical gains the in-class test might bring — and I’ll argue they are few and increasingly less relevant — I can no longer justify forcing people with disabilities to disclose their conditions in order to receive basic test-related accommodations.

Although protections for disabled students date back to Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act spurred widespread change throughout academe. Compliance with the ADA and with Section 504 — for any institution receiving federal funds (including financial aid) — requires providing reasonable accommodations to students with diagnosed disabilities. It’s become routine, rather than rare, for students to begin the semester by presenting their professors with documented requests for accommodation.

That it’s become routine is great but far from perfect. Not only do students have to disclose disability to their professors —who are no more immune to ableism than to any other sort of bias — but the most common form of accommodation extends the disclosure to classmates. Many students with invisible disabilities (such as anxiety disorders or ADHD) require quiet rooms and extra time to work on a test. I’m thrilled to provide both. On the other hand, when the whole class gathers to take an exam, with one student conspicuously absent, everyone notices.

Right on, David!  (Be sure to read the whole article.)  He comes to his conclusion about canning the in-class, timed exams based on his understanding of the concept of universal design.  Perry explains, “That term — coined in the 1970s around architecture and public space —advocates that systems be designed to accommodate the widest range of function and ability possible. Universal design asks us to try and build accessibility into the fabric of our institutions and culture, rather than wait until individuals make their needs known.”  I’m sure you’ve seen evidence of it in buildings of recent construction–the extra-wide doorways and hallways, the paddle-handle door pulls that have replaced traditional doorknobs because they don’t require the number of fine motor skills to operate.

I don’t think I’ve given a blue-book, in-class exam since maybe 2005 or 2007.  Even then, I only did them in my large survey courses.  Quite frankly, my reasons were somewhat selfish (who wants to read all that bad handwriting? Also, making special arrangements with the office for student disabilities was extra time and attention I didn’t always feel that I had at the end of the semester.)

But there were also pedagogical reasons, too.  I reflected on my experience of writing blue-book exams and of writing research papers or take-home final exams.  Whereas I still remember (nearly thirty years later!) the subjects and the findings of research papers and other substantial intellectual projects I wrote in college, I have no memory of any blue book exam I ever wrote.  None–and I’m the kind of dork who actually loved taking exams, who loved writing furiously for two hours, knowing that I was absolutely crushing the subject.  Loved it!  I probably learned something along the way too, like how to prepare for a two-hour in-class timed blue-book exam, but I’m not sure what else.  (I have vague memories of being very impassioned about the Federalist Papers at one time, and also an intense exam on urban architectural history).  I’m guessing that most of you reading this blog post might say the same, and it makes sense based on what we know about how people learn:  the more active students are in researching a topic or creating a final project, the more they retain!

Just about every semester since I switched over to only take-home midterm essays and final exams, I have had at least one if not several students THANK me for permitting them to write their exams on their own time and in an environment conducive to their intellectual productivity.  And it’s not just students with learning disabilities–it’s other students who appreciate the opportunity to give me a fair rendering of what they’ve learned, rather than an exam dependent on how many other finals they’ve already crammed for, how many they have left to go, and when their rides home or plane tickets say they’re leaving town.

Next year, when I’m scheduled to teach another survey course, I’ll face a practical and moral hurdle because I decided to stop using plagiarism detecting software in my upper-division courses.  It’s not very good–every one of the (few) cases of plagiarism I’ve found in my classes in the past decade I’ve found on my own.  But also, I’m sick of my students giving their intellectual property away for free to a company (Canvas! Blackboard! Whatever!) who sells it back to my university and other universities in their (craptastic) plagiarism detection software.

Just as I decided that I won’t write for free anywhere but on this blog, I must stand up for my students’ intellectual work as well, and as David Perry urges us to stand up for our students’ privacy and intellectual integrity too.

20 thoughts on “WIZ 301: Defense Against the Dark Arts, or, how universal design improves our teaching

  1. I do math classes. Midterm on basic concepts is in class. They have 3 hours for a hour and 15 min exam (takes me 20 min, but the bulk of students are gone at the half-way mark). Students can get accommodations (time and quiet room) from the disabilities office, and I do think they should interface with the disabilities office because our disabilities office is good and helpful (beyond just accommodations) and there should be nothing embarrassing about having a disability.

    Final exam is take-home. But that means it is longer and each student’s exam is unique which means it takes longer for them to do it and longer for me to grade.


  2. I teach philosophy at a community college, and I find that many of my students produce better work on an in-class exam than they do writing outside of class. Their in-class writing is clearer, more focused, and more precise. So, I do not intend to eliminate in-class essay exams.

    Also, I have many students who need to reschedule exams for a variety of reasons, and I have students who need extra time on exams. My students can’t tell why someone wasn’t at the regularly scheduled exam, and, frankly, many of them probably don’t even notice who is or isn’t there. But the social interactions are much more limited at a community college than they are at many 4-year schools, especially smaller ones. So, the concern that students will be able to identify those with disabilities might be much more pressing at some colleges than it is at most community colleges.


  3. A lot of this tracks with my experience. I liked writing blue book essays too, and did well on them, but I can’t even remember any of the questions, much less any of my answers or how I got to them. But I can remember very well a number of good (and one spectacularly bad) research papers written on my own time and pace. I stopped giving in-class bluebooks quite a long time ago, although this partly reflected the abominable conditions in the building and rooms (noise, lighting, climate control) that would have defeated even highly skilled students. For our super-not-popular but required of all non-majors so we can make our numbers “History for Curricular Prisoners” series, we have largely gone over to in-class objective testing during the term itself, because grading and turnaround and usable feedback circumstances were getting ruinous due to raw numbers. And in truth, some of the students just do better on those exams than they would have any hope of doing on exercises that we are conditioned to see as more meaningful. .But I give them take-home writing assignments at finals time, based on a reading of their choice from a list of accessible scholarly articles. And many of them do very well with these, and seem to realize however belatedly that history is a discipline capable of being wondered at, rather than something they make you take on the way to a degree in a more practical subject area that they can explain to their parents. The responsibility for these trade-offs exists at a while lot of levels.

    I’ve never used commercial plagiarism detectors. If the writing is at a better level than you could have imagined doing yourself at the same stage, and it all but screams “edited,” it’s usually not too hard to find out why with almost any search engine. At least in the cases that I’ve dealt with.


    • — For our super-not-popular but required of all non-majors so we can make our numbers “History for Curricular Prisoners”” —

      I love this expression. This wins the internets for this week. I am going to use it (with attribution) in our curriculum committee meeting this fall. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find in-class tests to be more hassle than they’re worth so I ditched these years ago along with finals for senior-level courses. if I want to get snapshots of student learning along the way, I can do that through microassignments such as discussion postings, weekly reaction pieces, online mini-quizzes, etc.

    Also, I can’t be the only person for whom managing alternate tests was driving them mad. Somehow midterms always hit in the middle of flu season! As well, I prefer to save my paleography skills for when they’re really needed: at the archives. I will NEVER be okay with administering a whackload of multiple-choice tests which is really the only way that in-class tests are really quick to mark.

    In other words, there are so many reasons to stop putting a lot of assessment weight on testing (I’d extend that to take-home tests and finals). Instead, I encourage students to self-test as they work through the term. I provide lists of key terms or concepts they should be able to define, organize and use by the end of the term but I’m thinking of setting assignments where students collaborate on study guides & other resources that their classmates will then “user-test” for a win/win scenario. That way they’re testing themselves in lower-stress ways, or so I hope!


  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Of course, everything depends on the subjects we teach and our goals for what we’re trying to test/assess.

    nicoleandmaggie make(s) an interesting point about having a disability not being an embarrassing thing. I agree–and most students in my experience who use our Resources for Disabled Students office are well served. I think David Perry’s point about helping students avoid involuntary self-disclosure is still important, though I take Eric Brandon’s point about how different learning environments offer different degrees of intimacy and knowledge among our students.

    Eric Brandon’s point about in-class writing vs. out-of-class writing is really interesting. My experience is entirely the opposite–that is, when I’ve given in-class exams, there are far more superficial and ridiculously short exams compared to when I’ve given take-home exams, in which there is a specified acceptable page range and a defined number of books and primary sources that the students have to write about. It’s made me wonder about the kinds of testing students are exposed to in high school, and therefore whether it’s worth teaching them how to write a blue book exam (versus teaching them how to think historically & to apply historical knowledge and insights to their analysis of information.)

    My guess is that Brandon’s students have less control over when and where they can do their out-of-class work; my students are likely more privileged in having time and access to spaces in which they can read, think, and write without interruption or local chaos.


    • The only person they would be disclosing to would be me. People take the exam with the other section for all sorts of reasons. (Sports, conflict with a class right before or after so they don’t get the extra time, etc.)


      • Also, I should note that the disabilities office doesn’t tell me what kind of disability the student has, just that they have one that allows X or Y accommodation (usually extra time in a quiet room). So in terms of disclosure to me, it’s just existence, no details.


  6. True Confession: I started out as a young idealistic (visiting) assistant professor and only gave take home essay exams. After I earned tenure I stopped doing take homes and went back to bluebook exams. My reasons were partly personal and partly pedagogical:

    1) I was fed up with spending more time in class answering questions and arguing with students about page length, footnotes, bibliographies, and plagiarism than answering actual questions about history.

    2) Students would not or could not write a paragraph with a topic sentence much less a thesis statement for their introduction. The grammar was atrocious. I got tired of reading essays that were basically gibberish. If the English department does not have to teach grammar and basic writing skills in composition 101 I do not see why I need to be teaching it in the history department. period. (If we want to switch to writing across the curriculum, that is another matter, and I would be on side for that kind of teaching, but it won’t happen because of turf). In a perfect world I’d be that teacher that helps the student turn their writing around, but its not a perfect world, I need to also do service work, advising, and try to get published. I won’t be a martyr to my teaching.

    3) In class exams give me the chance to ask students to do a combination of historical thinking tasks like recalling knowledge, putting events in chronological order and interpreting primary sources. I give the students three fifty minute time periods to complete a battery of multiple choice questions (which I have written myself and are based on vocabulary, not the names of dead people or treaties); a chronology questions where students put ten events in correct chronological order (the students help me generate the events and a study guide of twenty events for the study guide); essays where they have to answer four questions about primary sources that they have read on their own and we have discussed as a class.


    • gah, funny that I should complain about student writing and then fail to proofread my own comment. Consider me chastened. I will try to pull the plank out of my own eye before pointing out the mote in the eyes of my students.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you make a good case here, esp. on the combination of historical thinking tasks you want to measure. I have the good fortune of teaching students a subject that they’ve been exposed to already at least twice in their educations, so I don’t have to be as concerned about that.

        Also, my courses are very conceptual & not event or even strictly chronologically driven. I think that comes with the territory of the history of colonialism. What’s happening in New Mexico and New England in the 17th C may look a lot like the Ohio Valley or California in the later 18th C and then Utah and Texas in the 19th C. I think it also happens when you teach in themes that favor the longue duree, like gender, sexuality, and the environment.

        That said, I had to give my students an admonishment before their final exams were due to at least *consider* the role that chronology *might* play in explaining how & why a primary source describes something.


  7. PS – I think David Perry is a great writer and public advocate for good teaching and disability studies. Good on him for choosing to drop the bluebook exam. I am sure that it is the right move for him and his students, its just not the right move for me.


  8. My class sizes are fairly large, so students requiring accommodations aren’t noticeable when they are absent for in-class exams. And I still use those. In my survey sections I use part multiple choice tests as a way of managing grading time. But I don’t use test bank questions, and I take care to have the questions I write reflect what I think is important for the students to know.

    In those survey sections, I also give two in-class essays based on an assigned reading. I used to do those as take home assignments (and I used to give take home exams in my smaller, upper division courses), but stopped several years ago when it became clear that too many students were handing in poor and/or plagiarized essays. Plus there was all that wrangling over length and format, and endless student complaints that this wasn’t an English class.

    I’ve actually found that survey students do much better when they have a study guide to refer to while they read the book and are allowed to have the book with them when they write the essay in class. I provide specific instructions about crafting the essay and what to address, and have been generally pleased with the informed, thoughtful essays.

    So, yes, I agree that such decisions are very much based on class size, teaching style, and the students themselves.


    • You’re making me think that maybe I’ll do some in-class quizzes for a few points, or just extra credit.

      I like to show them an image in class and have them analyze it. For students who have attended lectures, it’s a snap because I’ve usually shown the image itself & analyzed it in class and have invited them to pitch in. For students who haven’t been attending, I’m sure it’s bewildering.


  9. I’ve also switched mostly to open-book and/or open-note essays, with topics given in advance (sometimes a very specific topic, sometimes a more general one that I then get more specific on in the test). During that exam hour, students are sitting and writing without any interruptions, and I think that experience is extremely valuable. I doubt that kind of uninterrupted work occurs very often (if ever) outside of the classroom.

    I wonder how concerned the students themselves are about revealing disabilities – this would be an interesting thing to study. I am of course always careful not to refer to accommodations in front of other students, but I find that the students themselves seem comfortable with talking about them and don’t seem embarrassed.


    • And @theresa too–I used to give in-class blue book open book/open note exams & I even distributed the possible questions in advance, but found that the essay quality was still pretty poor. My students seem to have assumed that since I gave them every advantage, that meant that the exam would be graded very leniently, when in fact the opposite was the case.

      I would regularly have students who would sit in a 2-hour exam the entire time, and turn in essays that were 2 paragraphs long (1-2 pages in their blue books.) Why??? I guess they were waiting for divine inspiration, or something. (Unsurprisingly, these were students whom I didn’t recognize at all after 15 weeks of class, so infrequently did they darken our classroom door.)

      It’s also difficult to gauge fairly length of essay answers in blue books–so it’s hard to tell them how much is enough to say to answer each question. I also found that many of my students have a difficult time estimating how much time they’ll need, or want to use, to answer questions on in-class essays. Giving them a number of pages to write seems to be a fairer and more easily understood metric.


      • In intro courses, I give a lot of guidance on essay length and content (e.g., this should be an essay of four paragraphs (about 5-6 sentences each), with the first three talking about three different pieces of music – including both the origin of the song and its religious elements – and a final concluding paragraph comparing and contrasting the pieces). This has worked pretty well, and some students even seem to enjoy it.
        In the upper level classes, they know what I want because they’re writing reading responses for every class and talking about the primary sources in detail, so it hasn’t been a problem. (I graded very hard on the midterm, and not one of them came unprepared to the final – I think the lowest grade was a B.)


  10. Pingback: Why it’s a good idea to take your teaching off the grid | Historiann

  11. Thank you for reminding me that I have a draft of a reply to David’s post partially crafted. Let me just say here that getting rid of one sort of an exam in favour of another does not necessarily reflect universal design, and might very well create as many problems for students with one sort of disability as it solves for students with another sort. I find the idea of a faculty member deciding what is best for “disabled students” extremely problematic, unless that faculty member is an expert in all of the disabilities that all of her students might have. But more once I get myself packed up for traveling.


    • Hey, ADM–it’s good to hear from you!

      I’ll eagerly await your own post–will you let us know here when it’s up?

      I would be surprised if David felt he were “deciding what is best for ‘disabled students’.” He has written thoughtfully for years about disability in the workplace & in the media. That’s not to say that he can’t be questioned or challenged, but he’s a person who has really thought through many of these issues more than most of us have.

      I thought that Eric Brandon’s comments way upthread were an interesting rebuttal to Perry’s rejection of in-class exams, and for similarly thoughtful reasons. If you haven’t seen his comments, be sure to check them out.


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