A common complaint from students is that final exams do not always test the kinds of knowledge that is asked for in homework or quizzes or presented in lectures. Whether this perception is accurate or not, it's still an excellent starting point for talking about what you are testing when you give a final exam. The worst final exams can seem unfocused, determined to test everything, or random things. The best final exams are learning moments.

If you presented a set of learning goals and objectives to your students on your syllabus, you're way ahead of the game, because that means you've thought through what is important to you for a particular class. The very simplest procedure then is to develop an exam that will demonstrate whether students have achieved these objectives.

Here are some general suggestions

  • Review what you will cover or have covered in semester and--very important--why you've covered it. Then rank the material into three categories: "vital," "nice to know," "can get by without." Most exams will not ever get past the "vital" category.
  • Decide how best to test the "vital" material. For this, you may want to refer to Bloom's Taxonomy. Are you testing simple recall? Analysis? Application? Synthesis? There are key words that signal each of these tasks.
  • If you are testing large numbers of students, don't think that you are only able to test facts or recall. There are creative ways of using computer-scored exams to elicit all kinds of knowledge.
  • As you develop questions, you might consider soliciting exam questions from your students. The two major benefits of this are that it tells you what they think is important/interesting and it gets them to think about the course as a whole.
  • When you're done with a draft of the exam, take the exam and time yourself. If you can, ask someone else to take it, too. Often, you will find that instructions that are perfectly clear to you are not so clear to someone else.
  • Consider the layout of the exam. For instance, often with essay questions, we blend what we intend to be helpful background with the question itself, and students have to hunt for the question. Instead: put the background in one paragraph, and label it as such. Then put the question on a separate line. Again, in an essay question, try to focus on what you want. If you ask too many questions, you won't get a coherent essay, but a series of answers to those questions.
  • Beware of some dangerous words: "discuss," "analyze," and "explain." In some fields and for some faculty, these have very specific meanings that have been clearly conveyed to students. In many instances, however, we use these interchangeably, and really just mean "do something substantial with X." Think before you use those words. Another problematic phrase is "compare and contrast." The danger here is that you're really asking for a list-which is fine if that's what you want. But for an essay question, we're missing a "why?" that is, "what is the point of making the comparison?"
  • Closer to the final exam time, discuss the exam with your students, letting them know the kinds of questions you'll be asking and why.
  • After the exams have been graded, do a quick analysis of the questions and responses. Are there some that generated more incorrect or less successful responses than you expected? Make changes and note suggestions now, for next year. Do it while the exam is fresh in your mind.

Alternatives to Final Exams

There are many alternatives to final exams, some of which are discussed in our Assessment & Evaluation: Course Level Learning section.