Designing the Final Exam

One complaint you hear fairly often from students about professors or courses involves exams whose relationship to material covered is vague or unclear. Sometimes students feel like they cannot reasonably guess what terms they will be asked to identify or define, that such terms may include ideas never discussed or reviewed in the class or in extreme cases, only minimally discussed in textbooks.

The final exams in my survey classes are one of the few places that I ask students to demonstrate command of a concrete body of discrete facts. I divide the exam between identification questions, which are 40% of the grade, and an essay, which is 60%. Usually I have eight, sometimes ten, items that I want students to identify.

To help them prepare, I hand out a sheet with around 40-50 terms from which I intend to draw the terms which will appear on the exam. Quite a few of them overlap, and I suggest to the students that it would be a good idea to think about incorporating the overlapping or related terms into a single identification if one term from that cluster appears on the exam. E.g., if you’re asked to identify “Igbo” and “Arochukwu” and “title societies” also appear on the study list, use your knowledge of all those words in a single answer.

This seems to me to be a really good strategy for ensuring that the students leave the class knowing a set of concepts. They know what to study, and I draw my identification questions from my lectures and from the reading. Even if they skipped a reading earlier in the semester, this motivates them to go back and do it seriously now.

I was surprised a few years back when talking with a colleague about this approach that this colleague saw this as giving the students an “unfair advantage”. My colleague felt that if identificaton questions weren’t potentially drawn from any and all course materials without any hints about which materials, the students would just cherrypick the few highlights I was directing their attention to, and be rewarded for not fully engaging the course material evenly over the whole of the semester. This seemed like a really weird argument to me. With finals approaching here, I’m curious about what the larger academic universe thinks. How do you construct finals in courses that are intended in part to teach discrete bodies of facts and information?

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9 Responses to Designing the Final Exam

  1. meg says:

    I wrestle with it, to be sure. My worry isn’t “unfair advantages” but the rewarding of memory rather than learning (which is why I’ve been a bit gun-shy about identify-the-passage questions). But in general I fret about crafting finals that focus on the right things.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, I figure that every other class I teach beside my survey, I prize critical thinking, high-order processing of knowledge, and so on. So I’m not too worried about having a single type of class that demands being able to rattle off identification of concrete terms alongside an analytic essay. I do insist that the identification answers explain the significance of the term: it’s not enough to just memorize a definition, you need to tell me why it matters.

  3. That is almost identical to the format I’ve used the last year or two in my World History classes: Terms for short-term testing; essays for comprehensive integration. I must be on the right track….

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s a relatively common format. I’m more puzzled by my colleague’s insistence that it’s dirty pool to hand out a list of 50 or so terms as a study guide, that somehow this keeps students from “knowing” the whole of the course material.

  5. meg says:

    To play D’s A for a moment, in some classes understanding which terms are key and which are tangential is part of the course material. We all have our ways of making sure the class stays focused on core concepts, but I don’t think it is always wrong to test that level of understanding.

    That’s not to say that I don’t join you in your puzzlement regarding that specific case, but the principle that appears to underlie it doesn’t strike me as mad, bad, and dangerous.

  6. texter says:

    I taught postcolonial literature for the first time last semester, and I handed out a study guide for the final that included potential terms for identification and potential essay questions.

    I even spent some time over two class periods answering questions based on the study guide.
    I admit that like your colleague, at first I was hesitant to give out a study guide thinking that they should have “applied themselves” all semester long. However, this was a class with no prerequisites and I had plenty of non-majors, and I had to rethink my goals for the class.

    The Final Exam ended up being 1.) Quote identification from literary text (who said it, which text/context); 2.) Term Identification (theoretical terms where they had to write a paragraph explaining significance and example from readings) 3.) Long essay

    They appreciated the study guide, and after I got over my initial reservations, I was pleased to see them absorb this new material. I knew it would stick with them long after they left the class, and that was success for me!

  7. Endie says:

    In law we had both approaches: some lecturers took your approach, and let us know that the questions would be from a certain range of possibilities. Others didn’t. Everyone studied past papers, so the net result was the same in any case.

  8. bbenzon says:

    I’d think that students who are really prepared to deal with any 8-10 terms from a specified set of 40-50 items probably have learned something. Doesn’t seem like cherry picking to me.

  9. fran says:

    I have IDs and essays too in my survey course finals. IDs for grasp of concepts and basic facts, essays for some interpretation. I hand out possible essay topics and a larger list of IDs in advance so there’s no surprise. I’d rather make sure they’ve all done the readings and encountered these terms and concepts than go for unpredictability. Having tried both, handing out a review sheet doesn’t really improve their performance! It does calm them down and focuses their reading, though.

    Am looking forward to a post from you about student evaluations.

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