Center for Teaching and Learning

July 23, 2020

Online finals: Providing flexibility & opportunities for creativity

By Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, History

For last spring’s HSTLAC 289: The Cuban Revolutionary Experiment, I initially planned to offer a final exam, similar to the mid-term, but changed my mind. Instead, I asked my 26 students to do a final assignment. In the last week of class instruction, I made the final assignment optional in order to accommodate the needs of students impacted by the protests. Because I designed the class with a good number of short assignments, and because the mid-term exam went well, I felt comfortable making these changes.

The mid-term was a great success for the majority of students. The first part included a set of multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions. The other half consisted of three short writing exercises where students were presented with a scenario to respond to. Using knowledge from the class, they had to go on a Twitter rant, write a film review for their student group blog, and compose a Facebook post. The exam was all on Canvas, open book, and not timed. Students had four days to finish it (so they could come in several times to address the different components of the exam).

The final was going to be the same, but honestly, we all were very tired. Earlier in the quarter, we had a very effective short assignment in which students crafted a quiz based on the assigned reading and then had a class peer answer it. Because students had more autonomy, they engaged with the material differently. Inspired by that experience, I shifted the final exam to a final assignment.

The final assignment prompted students to pretend to be a TA for an upcoming study abroad program taking a group of Environmental Studies undergraduates to Cuba for two weeks. They were asked to create a one-hour presentation, based on our course, introducing students to the projects and struggles of the Cuban revolutionary experiment of the last 60 years. As TAs, they were charged with preparing the study-abroad students to understand with historical nuance the socio-political dynamics they would encounter in their visit to the island. They had to prepare 8-10 slides discussing at least five major points (three of these points had to be based on matters explored in the second half of the course). I provided some tips on what makes for effective slide presentations to help students think through the medium strategically. Their slide presentations were evaluated mainly on substance, completeness, coherence, creativity, and originality.

These changes to the course assignments resulted in the students experiencing more joy and creativity in learning, which is what I think we need most.


Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva is a Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor in History and associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history. She is also the current director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History at UW-Seattle. Her research focuses on the production of race in the Americas, slavery and post-emancipation racial politics, and comparative colonial arrangements in the configuration of empires. She is the author of the award-winning book Silencing Blackness: Disentangling Race, Colonial Regimes, and National Struggles in Post-Emancipation Puerto Rico (1850-1920). Her scholarship appears in several academic journals such as the Hispanic American Historical Review, positions: Asia critique, Journal of Modern American History, and NACLA: Report on the Americas.