It’s early December, it’s exam period and the air on campus is intense with last minute studying and test anxiety. Except perhaps for one classroom in Cedar…

I enter the room to find 32 early childhood education students chatting and laughing in groups of four as they place notes and snacks in front of them. Some of them have a sucker in their mouth. I sense some adrenaline, but most of all, excitement! I am trying something new, the instructor, Barb Mathieson had said in her email the day before. I’m going to do a paper-bag exam that’s all about metaphors and reflecting on what students have learned in the course.

Leaves, Oranges and Erasers

Sure enough. In front of each student is a brown paper bag. For the next hour and a half, students will be trying to literally and metaphorically connect the surprise items in the bags to the main points discussed in the course, all through a combination of individual reflection and sharing and discussion with each other. The structure, which Barb has slightly adapted to fit her context, is not unlike a think-pair-share or 1-2-4-all. After this, and a quick break, students will engage in the marked and written portion of the exam, the individual self-reflection.

As the exam begins and the students open their bags, there is a collective and audible expression of ahhh and ohh, as they examine their artifacts: Eye glasses, leaves, pinecones, an orange, a red pen and pencil, magnetic numbers, children’s drawings and an eraser and whiteout tape. Yes, EDUC 384 is about numeracy in the early years, and you can tell from the students’ reactions that Barb has carefully picked each item based on the course content.

An Exam that Celebrates Learning

Barb skillfully guides her students through each step of the exam and tells them what to pay attention to with reminders such as “remember this is going to help you for your own reflection…” “this part is to give you ideas…”, “One minute left, so think outside the box!” She makes no secret of the fact that she’s trying something new and different, and she takes plenty of time to answer questions in between each part. Although the exam format is new to everyone, the student have seen the instructions before and practiced using an onion as a metaphor. Barb explains: I was concerned that some students would struggle with the idea of the metaphor, so we did a short practice exam during our last class. 

During the sharing in pairs and foursomes, I’m struck by the genuine sense of support and collective discovery when students add to each other’s ideas. Faces that light up, and exclamations like oh yes! followed by enthusiastic note-taking, make me think that this is not an exam – it’s a learning experience. Or perhaps more accurately it’s icing on the cake after a semester’s effort and achievement – a celebration of learning!

Why a Paper Bag Exam? 

But why a paper-bag exam? The idea was developed by Denise Ousley-Exum, PhD as “a joyful experience, an exam filled with conversation, idea exchange, laughter, and learning”, and as a way “to address the disconnect that she and her students were experiencing between instruction and assessment”. In my debrief with Barb, she adds that it was definitely the most lively exam she had ever seen and that more than anything, the interaction during the first hour and a half reduced the anxiety levels. Students commented afterwards that they felt the exam was “a refreshing change” and that they didn’t feel stressed at all, which allowed them to more fully engage with the concepts they learned in class. As one student said in her feedback: Engaging in discussions with other people was really helpful for clarifying and articulating my ideas […] I also liked that it was more open ended than a traditional exam; it provided me with the opportunity to genuinely share what I learned during the course rather than relying on my ability recall answers to specific questions.

And the results? Interestingly enough, as Barb was marking the exam, she wasn’t surprised by the marks and found it really obvious who clearly understood the main concepts covered in the course and who didn’t. But she saw far more in-depth thinking in the self-reflective papers than in a traditional ‘answer the question’ exam. See that is something to celebrate!


PS: Did I mention that the exam of course included a 30 second movement break and later a group cheer?! Well, if you know Barb, that’s just how she teaches. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that what she does is effective!

References: Ousley-Exum, D. Brown Bag Exams: A Creative Way to Assess Learning. Retreived from Jan 9, 2019