Published: Tues., Dec. 1, 2015
Students don’t ask, “Is this going to be on the final?” to exasperate their teachers (although it may feel that way!). They're interested in their grades, but the question also comes from a sense of uncertainty: students are worried that they’ll be asked to remember lectures from the first week, that they'll need to synthesize information they never had to before, or that they’ll see tricky questions about topics only briefly mentioned in the reading.
Some instructors avoid final exams and the associated student anxiety by assigning final projects that evaluate student learning throughout the semester. If you're teaching a course that includes a final exam, you can put your students at ease by planning for your final exam now and communicating your expectations. To create an exam that's a good measure of student learning, take time to reflect on the exam’s purpose, develop appropriate questions, prepare your students to succeed, and make a plan for grading.
Reflect on the Exam's Purpose
A good exam connects the topics and skills tested in the final directly to the learning objectives. So before you begin writing your exam, reflect on the learning objectives for the class.
By connecting the questions asked on the final exam with your established learning goals, you’re tapping into the key reason for giving a final exam: to evaluate what your students know (and don’t know).
When there’s a disconnect between the learning objectives and the final exam, students feel they’ve been tricked, or they aren’t being evaluated on what they learned during the semester, and rightly so. If student assignments during the semester were based on lower-order skills (remember key equations or understand historical events), it wouldn’t be fair for a final to assess students ability to analyze systems of equations or evaluate a law's historical impact.
To write a fair exam, keep in mind that undergraduate students, especially those in intro-level courses, are still novices. Don’t test them as if they're experts (or even graduate students), and make sure that course activities have prepared them for the types of questions they'll encounter on the final.
Write the Test
It’s easier to write exam questions if you established clear learning objectives for your students and have a firm grasp of the exam's purpose. The types of questions you use should assess both how well your students have learned the content and course-appropriate thinking skills.
Writing Good Questions
These resources outline how to write good test questions:
The UNL TA Handbook summarizes how to select test material, types of questions, and provides examples of effective questions
Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching describes how to write good multiple choice questions.
The Academy of Art University provides a helpful list of questions sorted according to Bloom's Taxonomy.
The University of Washington outlines the steps of writing a good test.
Contrary to popular belief, multiple choice questions can be written to test higher-level thinking skills. Consider the advice offered by Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D., author of The Teaching Professor Blog. The stem—the main part of the question that comes before the choices—should both “present…a single problem” and relate “to significant content in the course.” Complete the stem by writing the correct answer first, keeping it brief. Finally, write your distractors—the incorrect answers. All distractors should be plausible and approximately the same length as the correct answer. Avoid using obviously incorrect or otherwise humorous answer choices. Multiple choice questions written this way prevent students from simply guessing the right answer and can therefore accurately assess student learning.
Perhaps the easiest questions to write, they are also the least reliable measure of student understanding. If you do use true-false questions, use them for just part of the exam. Use more false than true answers (but not more than 15% more), and make sure that statements are either entirely true or entirely false. If there are possible exceptions, even the students who have prepared well for the exam will struggle to decide which answer is right, since they’ll focus on the exception rather than the rule.
Short answer questions can be quick to write and easy to grade, but at their simplest they tend to test low-level skills, like remembering vocabulary. To test students’ deeper understanding of a subject, write clear directions for the expected answer (for example, "Provide one or two sentences"). Short answer questions can appear deceptively simple, so it's a good idea to include the number of points each question is worth. This way, students realize how important each question is to the exam.
Arguably the best type of exam question for assessing a student’s grasp of a topic, the essay also limits the amount of information you can cover in a single question. Essay questions also require the largest time investment by the student—depending on the question, students may be able to answer just one or two questions in an hour. As a result, students who only answer a few essay questions during the exam may feel like they weren’t tested on all of the semester’s material. Essay questions also require a lot of time to grade objectively.
To cover the topics covered during the whole semester, use essay questions in coordination with other types of questions. Write essay questions that will require students to draw on the knowledge they’ve built over the entire semester, rather than information covered in just one chapter.
Prepare Your Students to Succeed
You can demystify the testing process for your students and make them more comfortable and confident going into the final. Use one or more of the following strategies to help your students get the most out of your test: have them write questions they'd expect to find on the test, explain the different sections of the test (question types and what the test will cover), and share the grading criteria.
Have students Write their own Exam questions
By writing their own exam questions, students are encouraged to make connections between the material they’ve covered and they get into the instructor’s mindset. When they consider what’s worth testing and how it could be presented on a test, students are actively reviewing class material. They ask themselves what's important and formulate questions that gauge their knowledge of that information. An added bonus to having students write their own questions: they get to step into the expert's shoes and they see how difficult it is to write a good test.
When students write their own exam questions, they reflect on their readings and engage with the material on a deeper level, says Ian Brown, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama. Consider having students next semester write test questions about each reading, due on the day you’re to discuss it. Within a few weeks, and with your feedback, students will develop an ability to ask questions that foster higher-level thinking.
break down what's on the Test
Some students are anxious about the text because they don’t know what kinds of questions they’ll be asked or what the test will cover (hence the question “Is this going to be on the final?”). Put your students at ease by being transparent about what you’re testing—you're not going to give anything away because ideally, a handout with the review topics won't be different than what's in your syllabus. With the semester's topics presented as a review sheet, students may see connections within and between topics they didn't see in the syllabus. They can also see how one skill may build on another (for example, how a calculus problem builds on algebra or trigonometry knowledge).
Share grading criteria
Like the review sheet, sharing the grading criteria for a take-home final or essay questions help students understand major and minor topics. The weight of each question reflects the importance of any given item. For example, a question that asks students to list the steps of photosynthesis would be worth far fewer points than an essay question about the evolutionary importance of photosynthesis. The first question tests recall, while the second asks the test taker to understand the process in a larger context.
To communicate to your students the relative weight of the concepts and the thinking skills required by your exam, you could share the exam skeleton. By understanding how the points will be distributed on the exam, your students will know how to focus their energies.
For students writing take-home essays, sharing a grading rubric also helps students focus their energy. The rubric communicates how students are being evaluated. That level of transparency can motivate them to invest more time in the assignment, and to focus on the areas that will most impact their grades. And because the grading criteria connects directly with course learning goals, sharing the rubric also underscores the key concepts learned and the skills developed during the semester.
Make a Grading Plan
Final grades are due five days after the final exam is administered. If you’re planning to travel or have other deadlines soon after the exam, it’s essential to have a plan. While your schedule’s still relatively clear, block off several spots on your calendar for grading. Break up the grading into manageable chunks so you can stay focused and objective. Trying to grade all of your student exams at once will at best make you grumpy, and at worst negatively affect student grades.
When you create an answer key, plan where you’ll give partial credit on short answers or solution sets where students show their work. Anticipating possible scenarios before your students take the test gives you another opportunity to make sure that your questions are well-written and your instructions clearly outline your expectations.If your exam consists of several pages, grade one page at a time for all of your students. By focusing on just a few problems at once, you’re able to grade more efficiently. You’ll discover patterns in the types of mistakes being made, and it will be easier to grade consistently, too.