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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Why A Warrior’s Exam is More Realistic Form of Assessment

At the end of each semester, I require students in my college classes to participate in what’s called a Warrior’s Examination, an oral assessment, where a person must spontaneously (and courageously, hence the term, warrior) answer a randomly chosen question about the course content or concepts.

I did not invent this exam. It is extensively used at Naropa University, a private, Buddhist-inspired institution in Boulder, Colorado. I began using the assessment format after I felt that traditional assessments, such as multiple-choice tests, were not an authentic way to measure learning and the gaining of deep knowledge. I also wanted an exam scenario that better matched the challenges and demands of the real world, not some made-up requirements of academia or schooling.

Here’s the way it works in my classroom:

  • I send a list of possible exam questions to students about two weeks in advance of the exam. There’s about 15-20 questions depending on the number of students in the class.
  • The questions address content and major concepts covered in the curriculum throughout the semester.
  • During the day of the exam, I set up two chairs and a table with three bowls at the front of the room. The first bowl contains all the students’ names. The second bowl also contains the names of the students. The third bowl contains the list of questions, each on a separate slip of paper.
  •  A student’s name is drawn, and they sit in the first chair, or the “hot seat” since they must answer a question. A second name is drawn for a student to sit in the next chair and ask the question, which they pull from the third bowl.
  • The student reading the question reads the question aloud, to the entire class, slowly and clearly. The other student is then given time to reflect before answering. Students have about five minutes to answer the question (though, I don’t time them since it hasn’t taken that long).
  • Students' responses are evaluated based on the following categories: 1) the "freshness" of their response, how original and creative it was, 2) knowledge of the content and course concepts, and 3) their ability to connect the information to themselves through personal examples, stories, etc.

When I first explain the Warrior Exam, students tend to get anxious because it is so different from what they normally do when taking tests in class. However, after experiencing this type of assessment, they often say they prefer this way to demonstrate their learning.

The Warrior’s Exam, in my opinion, is a more authentic method of assessing learning and knowing. After having time to prepare, students must speak from the heart, from a place of honesty and vulnerability. They must possess the courage to speak what they believe, but they must also reveal a level of knowledge and skill of the course content. In addition, they are being coached in how to rise to an occasion, how to think on their feet, and not respond to pre-determined, memorized answers. You must respond intelligently and creatively, which is what life demands from us. Memorizing and regurgitating will not work in a Warrior’s Exam. I suppose you can try to rehearse answers for 20 questions, but even then, under the pressure of the exam, I don’t think they will come out the same. The answers must become part of you and come from inside.  

I often use the example of a job interview. I tell students that they can prepare for a job interview by researching the company, rehearsing responses, etc. but they never really know what the interviewer is going to ask or when they will ask it. They must be courageous and trust themselves to answer.

Life is not a paper-and-pencil test. These tests may have their place, somewhere in learning.

But the format seems contrived. Life requires responding in the moment, sincerely, courageously, slipping up at times and recovering, and education should reflect and prepare individuals for these moments.