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1. About this Course

It covers all of the substantive material that is usually taught in a survey course of American Literature at the college level. It reviews the prose and poetry written in the United States from colonial times to the modern era.

"In this course we will progressively go through the different stages of writing. Specifically, we will look at The Colonial era, the Early National Period, the Romantic Period, the Period of Realism and Naturalism, the Modernist Period and the Contemporary Period Terms. Then we will look at Verse Forms and Literary Devices and a section on Writing the Essays. We will go thought the major movements and look at the major writers of them, discuss their lives a bit, and take a look at some of their important work," explains our instructor Dean Simpson, professor of language and literature courses at Tufts University.

The goal of the creator of this course – Modern States Education Alliance, a non-profit organization – is to prepare you to pass the College Board's CLEP examination and obtain college credit for free.

Our “American Literature” course is completely self-paced. There are no prerequisites to take this course, and it is entirely free. By watching the videos a number of times, reviewing the modules, reading the supplementary texts and doing the practice questions, you should be well prepared for the CLEP exam.

2. About the Exam and the Essay

The CLEP exam contains approximately 100 questions to be answered in 90 minutes.

The exam will primarily test your knowledge on literary works —their content, background, and authors— and you will be required an ability to interpret poetry, fiction and nonfiction prose, as well as a familiarity with the terminology used by literary critics and historians.

It emphasizes fiction and poetry and deals to a lesser degree with the essay, drama, and autobiography. In both coverage and approach, the examination resembles the chronologically organized survey of American literature offered by many colleges. It assumes that you have read widely and developed an appreciation of American literature, know the basic literary periods, and have a sense of the historical development of American literature.

In addition to the multiple-choice test, some schools require to complete an essay section, which includes two essays to be written during a total time of 90 minutes. You are expected to write well-organized essays in clear and precise prose.

For the first essay, a common theme in American literature and a list of major American authors are provided. You will be asked to write a well-organized essay discussing the way that theme is handled in works by any two of those authors.

For the second essay, you will be asked to respond to one of two topics—one requiring analysis of a poem, the other requiring analysis of a prose excerpt.

In each case, the specific poem or prose excerpt is provided and questions are offered for guidance.

Note: The essay section is graded by faculty at the institution that requests it and is still administered in paper-and-pencil format. There is an additional fee for taking this section, payable to the institution that administers the exam.  

3. Required Knowledge and Skills

The CLEP exam requires you to demonstrate:

  • 45%-60% Knowledge of particular literary works:
    • Authors
    • Characters 
    • Plots 
    • Style 
    • Setting
    • Themes

  • 25%-40% Ability to understand and interpret short poems or excerpts from long poems and prose works presented in the test.

  • 10%-15% Knowledge of the historical and social settings of specific works, their relations to other literary works and to literary traditions, and the influences on their authors.

  • 5%-10% Familiarity with critical terms, verse forms, and literary devices.

These are the percentages of exam questions from each period:

15% The Colonial and Early National Period (Beginnings-1830)
25% The Romantic Period (1830-1870)
20% The Period of Realism and Naturalism (1870-1910)
25% The Modernist Period (1910-1945)
15% The Contemporary Period (1945-Present)

4. Course Modules

Following are the main topics and percentages of the exam’s questions, mostly based on the College Board's description of the course:


Module 1: About the Test

1.1 About the Test  


Module 2: The Colonial and Early National Period (Beginnings – 1830) (15 %)

2.0 Introduction

2.1 Early European Exploration and Writing   

2.2 The Colonial Period (1620-1776)   

2.3 The Early National Period (1750-1820)  


Module 3: The Romantic Period (1830–1870) (25 %)

3.0 Introduction 

3.1 Unique American Literature   

3.2 American Romanticism   


Module 4: The Period of Realism and Naturalism (1870–1910) (20 %)

4.0 Introduction   

4.1 Background   

4.2 Kirkland, Davis, Alger, Twain and Howells   

4.3 Bierce, James, Jewett, Chopin and Washington   

4.4 Chesnutt, Gilman, Garland, Wharton and Du Bois   

4.5 Robinson, Dreiser, Crane, Dunbar and Cather   


Module 5: The Modernist Period (1910–1945) (25 %)

5.0 Introduction   

5.1 About Modernism   

5.2 Drama   

5.3 Prose   

5.4 Poetry   


Module 6: The Contemporary Period (1945–Present) (15 %)

6.0 Introduction  

6.1 Background   

6.2 Prose   

6.3 More Prose   

6.4 Poetry   

6.5 More Poetry   

6.6 Drama   


Module 7: Terms, Verse Forms and Literary Devices

7.1 Terms, Verse Forms and Literary Devices      


Module 8: Writing the Essays

8.1 Writing the Essays

5. About Dr. Dana (Dean) Simpson, Tufts University

Dr. Dana "Dean" Simpson is a university lecturer and educational consultant from the Boston area. He teaches language and literature courses at Tufts University, Jinan University in China and Ramkhamhaeng University in Thailand.

Mr. Simpson teaches writing courses for first-year college students that cover the essentials of college composition in a variety of contexts. He also teaches more advanced courses on literary analysis and creative writing in Spanish as well as in English.

Literature courses that he teaches include classes on Western literature, Colonial literature, Spanish literature and literature from the Americas. Language courses that he teaches are in Spanish, English and French. He also teaches linguistics, communication, art history and poetry abroad, in addition to graduate classes on literacy and pedagogy in Boston.

His research interests include Vanguard and Symbolist poetry, Medieval Studies, Gender Studies, Basque studies and Innovations in teaching. He has also published four books of poetry in Spanish, as well as numerous scholarly articles in Spanish and English.

Mr. Simpson holds Masters and Doctorate degrees from Middlebury College, and a Masters in Higher Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has taught at Tufts, Boston University, Bentley, Brandeis, Stonehill, Harvard and MIT, among others. Abroad, he regularly teaches in China and in Southeast Asia. As a consultant, he has worked in the USA, Latin America and Asia with teachers and professors on curricular development, assessment and methodology.

6. How CLEP Works

Developed by the College Board, CLEP (College-Level Examination Program®) is the most widely accepted credit-by-examination program.

CLEP’s credits are accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities, according to the College Board. These tests assess college-level knowledge in 33 subject areas.

Modern States Education Alliance is the non-profit organization behind these edX-style courses. Its project is called “Freshman Year for Free” and its mission is to make college more accessible and affordable through free, high-quality online education.

• CLEP® American Literature: at a Glance

• 'Passing the CLEP and Learning with Modern States' orientation course