Monday, July 28, 2014

Der heisse Stuhl: Midterm and Final Exam Alternative

I can't be the only one out there who doesn't like multiple choice exams.  They're my least favorite means of testing (when was I ever in Germany and was presented with four choices to respond to the situation at hand?), but admittedly I do a lot of it come midterms and finals.  With five preps and a short grading window, it seems the easiest way to get it all done.  There is something I do, however, for my upper level German students that gets us away from the scantron sheets.

As part of their final, I have students do an activity called "der heiße Stuhl" or "Hot Seat."  One of the teachers where I did my student teaching did a very similar activity during the semester, but the way I use it works best as an end of semester "exam."  The premise is that each student will undergo an interview for about 5-8 minutes in front of the class.  Their classmates will primarily be the ones asking them questions, I only take over towards the last 2 minutes of their interview.  They write their own questions, based on the topics we've covered that year.

Note: In my experiences, most classes are up for the challenge once they get all the information.  However, for classes that are particularly hesitant, you might want to schedule "practice" days when they get to interview each other for 1-2 minutes at a time just to settle them in.

Step One: Introducing Heißer Stuhl
To give them time to a.) wrap their heads around the idea and b.) prepare their questions, I usually introduce this a few weeks beforehand.  The idea of speaking for 5-8 minutes in front of their classmates freaks some of them out at first.  The key is to assure them that it won't be as bad as they think it will.  Since they will be interviewing each other, to a certain degree they have control over the process.  Which leads us to...

Step Two: Writing Questions
Students are required to bring 20 questions to the interview, questions which they have written ahead of time.  These questions need to be spread across the various topics we've covered this year.  I give them a worksheet which contains not only a sample question but lists the topics we've done so far.  Since they have to write their own questions, they get a mini-review as they go through former topics scavenging for decent questions.

There are some ground rules for the questions.  They shouldn't have any questions like "Was bedeutet 'das Nilpferd' auf English?" or "Wie sagt man 'suitcase' auf Deutsch?"  And if they ask questions like "Möchtest du nach Deutschland reisen?" they need to be ready with follow-up questions like "Warum (nicht)?  Wann?  Mit wem?"

I also hint that, "Hey, since these aren't due for a few weeks, wouldn't it be possible for you guys to get together, share questions, and practice interviewing each other ahead of time?"  I don't require it, but I feel that sharing their questions ahead of time gives them more review and practice with the material if they need it.

Step Three: Interviews
Depending on class size, you might want to do interviews across two class periods.  I had about 11 students this year and we needed two 50 minute class periods to get through all the interviews.  Keep in mind, you need roughly 10 minutes per kid.

I have a stool (sometimes a comfy chair - depends on what's available) that I set up in front of the classroom.  Whoever is being interviewed gets to sit in this "heißer Stuhl.  I would recommend starting with a volunteer so that shyer students see "Hey, that wasn't even that bad... I can do that!"

It's important to let students know that they have to provide detailed answers to questions - a yes/no or one-word response is not sufficient!  Even if the person asking the question didn't prompt them for more information, they need to think of more things they can say about that topic.  Make sure you hammer in on this point from the beginning!

During the interviews, I keep track of both who asked questions and how many each student answered.  When students are asking questions, I color code it somewhat just so I can see if it was spread out, if they asked about two questions per classmate, or if they just barraged certain classmates with questions.  I also will not count questions that did not meet the requirements I outlined above.

When answering questions during their interview time, I keep track of:

  • how many questions they answered
  • how long they spoke (I use a timer - I want to keep the time and number of questions similar for each student)
  • if they provided detailed responses in complete sentences vs. if they said the bare minimum
  • if they hesitate or stumble a lot when speaking
  • overall pronunciation, clarity, volume, speed
  • if they understood the questions and answered appropriately
  • if they switch to English or can't answer a question
  • grammar range and vocabulary range (not so much writing down every error as keeping track of what they have control over)

As I mentioned earlier, I end each of their interviews with my own questions.  When students first start writing their questions, after the basic guidelines, I give them this warning:
They start the interview, but I get to end it.  That means if they give each other really easy questions, I'm going to have to come down with the more difficult ones.  If they give each other decently hard questions, I get to give them easier ones.  If they avoid certain topics, I will be compensating with the topics they missed.  They start with the control over these interviews, but if they can't handle that responsibility, I'm ready to take it over.
I haven't really had any problems with them making it "too easy," but I usually have to throw in at least one "harder" question just to keep them thinking on their feet ;)

Step Four: Grading
After interviews, collect all the questions students turned in.  You'll be grading them on:

  • the quality of the questions they wrote (number of questions, if they met the content/difficulty requirements, grammar/spelling)
  • how many questions they asked during the interviews (compared to their classmates - student with the most questions asked usually sets the bar)
  • their own interview (see above for things to look for)

I currently do still give multiple choice exams in addition to Heißer Stuhl, but because of this process I can give them a shorter "exam."  Here's a breakdown how I calculated their final exam grade this year.

I had someone ask to provide more information on how I grade this exam.  I've tried to give an explanation of how I used the above handouts - let me know if anything's still unclear!

How to grade students as they interview each other

How to grade students when it's their turn to be interviewed

I've had a lot of success using this activity as an extension of the German 3 Final Exam.  Students usually do pretty well, or at the very least better than they thought they would.  I'd highly recommend trying it out - if not in place/in addition to your end of semester exams, then maybe throughout the quarter (example: one student interviewed a week).  It's been a worthwhile process!

- Frau Leonard


  1. Could you maybe post how the answering and asking pages work? I love the idea and the simple sheet but am not quite sure how I go about using it. Thanks!

    1. I'd be happy to - though it might take me a few days to get some visuals up to explain. Keep an eye out! I'll put the update directly in the original post.