Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Asking the Right Questions: Designing a Final Exam that Builds Learners

by Jennifer Hall, PhD CETLOE and Department of English

It’s that time of the semester again: finals week! Those of us teaching in person can feel the tension in the air as our students prepare to dump everything they’ve learned all semester into a final exam.

This is their time to shine! In the final exam, they’ll show us how they’ve been reading all semester and keeping careful notes. We’ll finally see evidence that they’ve been taking advantage of all those office hours and meeting with classmates to form study groups. They’ve been preparing for this moment for fifteen weeks, and they’ll show up well rested, full breakfast behind them, sharpened pencil and bluebook in hand!

Ok. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t specialize in creative writing. My plots were never believable. If they prepare for their final exams like most of us did, they’ll definitely need a break after this week. Many of them will spend the next seven days subsisting on coffee, redbull and allnighters, but that’s a college tradition, right?

As college traditions go, finals have never a very good one because they tend to reinforce an idea that most of us can’t stand: content in isolation, divorced from the larger context. Students often view final exams as a gateway, and once they pass through it, the course is complete, checked off the list, and filed away with all the other courses they’ve mastered. Sometimes we fall into that same trap, seeing our courses as isolated instances, and it’s not their fault or ours, really. The organization of college life into semesters, courses, and degree maps lulls us all into the sense that learning has a starting and end point and the final caps it off. We can’t change that structure, but what we might do as we design our exams this week is remind ourselves of some fundamentals of learning*: 

  1. Learning in the 21st century is skills based. Students need to be able to locate, interpret and apply concepts in ever changing situations.
  2. Information is not static. Memorization is a cool parlor trick in a world where we have instant access to data and the data the are constantly changing. 
  3. Our goal is internalization of information that students can use as building blocks for future learning opportunities. 

*(Adapted from “Too Much Teaching, Not Enough Learning: What is the Solution” by Heidi Lujan and Stephen DiDarlo​)

As you create your final exam over the next couple days, you might consider providing your students with opportunities to demonstrate their skills rather than their memorization abilities. Think about offering questions that will: 

  1. Demonstrate both retention and transfer. Rather than asking them to define concepts, ask them to use the concepts in a new situation. 
  2. Offer them options, letting them focus on demonstrating their ability to use the skills they’ve developed rather than forcing them into a “gotcha” situation. Options are really great for students with learning differences. 
  3. Consider designing an open book test so that they can focus more on how to use the information rather than panicking and placing too much emphasis on memorizing data and not enough on using it. 
  4. Ask them “big picture” questions that encourage them to think of what they’ve learned in terms of how the information will apply to future classes or their lives beyond the course. 
  5. Focus on questions that encourage them to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize. 
  6. Limit the number of questions focusing on quality of answers rather than quantity. Fifty multiple choice questions probably won’t tell you nearly as much about the learning as one solid essay or application task. If you do ask multiple choice questions, consider limiting the number and asking them to explain why they chose the answer they selected.

These suggestions won’t work in every case, and you may not be able to incorporate them this semester, but as you design your final exam, consider whether your final satisfies your goals for your students and your philosophy of teaching. If you find that your final has more to do with fulfilling a tradition than with your own philosophy of teaching, think about adapting it for future semesters so that it’s a tool for learning rather than just another test. 





jenniferhall • April 25, 2022

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