Can Final Exams Be Active Learning Exercises?

More on the recent topic of active learning strategies that don’t involve simulations . . . but first some meta-babble on how I understand the concept:

To be considered “active learning,” a task should require learners to apply prior knowledge in a novel way or within an unfamiliar context — what the cognitive scientists refer to as transfer. The activity should, in some fashion, resemble lived or expected experience, because people learn more if they see what they are learning as relevant (a feature referred to as authenticity). The activity should also be organized so that learning occurs efficiently. Finally, the learner should be cognizant of the learning process, which means reflecting on what has been learned and why.

In the social sciences and humanities, exams, especially final exams, are rarely regarded as opportunities for active learning. Perhaps they should be.

In an engineering course, one can easily imagine a final exam consisting of “design and build a bridge to scale, and we’ll see if it collapses.” Such an exam clearly involves the application of prior knowledge to an unfamiliar but highly-relevant context, through a process in which what was learned, or not, should become obvious to students.

I decided to change the final exam in my comparative politics course to try to better incorporate these principles. As usual, the exam was based on my Gerkhania simulation. Here is the exam prompt from 2020:

Which theoretical perspective (rational actor, culture, or structure) best explains events in the Gerkhania simulation? Why? Choose only one theoretical perspective, include specific events from the simulation as examples, and reference course readings to support your argument. 

Yes, I asked students to apply theoretical concepts to observed experience. So that’s good. But how many of them will enter doctoral programs where they will be working with theory in this manner? Zero.

Here is the prompt for this year:

Assume that the Gerkhania simulation was a real event. What changes to Gerkhania’s political system do you recommend? Why? In your analysis, support your argument with examples from the simulation and references to at least two red and two green journal articles listed in the syllabus.

Still not the equivalent of “design a bridge,” but compared to last year, the problem I asked students to solve is less structured and, at least in my opinion, more relevant.