How Faculty Can Improve Final Exams

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, Chronicle Of Higher Education

Many colleges are now gearing up for one of the most stressful times of the year. No, not March Madness, but final exams. Over the years, The Chronicle has published reams of advice on how to improve, conduct, and cope with this all-important moment in the academic calendar.

From abolishing finals to combating cheating, here are highlights from our most popular finals-themed advice columns as well as perspectives shared by seasoned instructors:

Final Exams or Epic Finales

Instead of having students scramble to finish a final exam and then bolt out the door, faculty members should end the semester with a memorable learning experience — an epic finale, Anthony Crider, an associate professor of physics at Elon University, wrote last year. Unlike a test, a “finale” can spark discussion and reflection afterward.

“This is exactly how a semester of learning should end,” Mr. Crider wrote. “Or, more to the point, this is how learning should not end.”

Mr. Crider detailed how he had scrapped his final for a day of applied research. Students did not have to write an accompanying essay, just apply what they had learned in the course. Here are some of his tips on handcrafting a finale:

Lower the stakes: Finales should account for about 10 percent or less of a student’s final grade, Mr. Crider said. That reduces pressure on both professors and students during an often experimental event.

Collaborate: Let students think aloud and work with one another, and listen in.

Shroud it in mystery: Intrigue students by not revealing the exam’s format.

Skeptical about the idea’s transferability? A teaching fellow in theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America was inspired by Mr. Crider’s essay to stage a heresy trial, an ecumenical council, and a monastic chartering for an epic finale in his course on the early history of Christianity. Students were assigned to groups before the finale and prepared for the different historical situations.

“If I wanted academic content to come down to earth and apply to my students’ lives, playing games seemed the best way to do it,” Andrew Jacob Cuff wrote. “Maybe it’s time for you to give it a try, too.”

To Stop Exam Cheats, Try Assigning Seats

Want to stop suspected cheaters? Give students the ultimate plot twist before the final exam and assign their seats.

A study by economists found that when students’ seats were assigned on the day of a final exam, cheating was reduced drastically. The study also allowed researchers to conclude that at least a tenth of students had cheated on the midterm. The researchers observed 1.1 more shared incorrect answers when students could choose who they sat next to than when their seating was assigned.

With assigned seating and three more proctors, researchers found no signs of cheating in the final.

Facing the Dreaded End-of-Term Question

When one professor announced there would be no final exam, hands shot up to ask the obvious question: “Do we still have to come to class?”

While it’s easy to snap at students who ask about class attendance, wrote Raymond DiSanza, an assistant professor of English at Suffolk County Community College, in New York, faculty members should encourage students to want to come to class, not feel forced to.

Mr. DiSanza advised professors to turn their frustration to motivation: a challenge to get students so excited about the material that they want to show up.

“Or, maybe most important,” he wrote, “you can do everything in your power to bring joy back to the classroom, to remind your students that what goes on in the classroom is about more than just the classroom, regardless of discipline.”

How Exams Improve Students’ Access to Their Brains

Finals are a rite of passage for college students. And while exams may not be the best way for students to learn, they are still educationally valuable, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I really worry about courses that don’t have them, to be honest,” he said. “More and more, faculty are not having exams. Well, that means their students are not reviewing the course material they taught them that semester.”

He added: “As long as you have an exam that asks deep, meaningful questions, questions that make people interrelate and integrate things across the course, they’re not just a measurement instrument, but they are a very important learning instrument.”

To the extent that information learned in a course is worth retaining, Mr. Roediger said, finals are worth the pain.

Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams

While studying for exams is a sign of academic responsibility, it’s also a form of instrumentalism, of achieving a goal, wrote David Jaffee, a sociology professor at the University of North Florida. Instead of urging students to study for an exam simply to pass a class, he said, professors should tell students to study for the sake of learning and understanding.

By repeating the phrase “study for exams” and administering such a test, he said, faculty members encourage the view that every academic action is a means to an end.

In the Land of Tests, the ‘Exam Dream’ Comes in Many Guises

Long after the blue books are handed in and final grades are posted, one thing still haunts current and former students — the exam dream.

Most such dreams follow the same mold: A nervous student arrives ill-prepared for an exam or to turn in a final paper, and panic ensues.

In a country plagued by tests, the dream is common. One scholar offered this explanation to The Chronicle’s Eric Hoover: Tests are many students’ first school experience, and those memories are natural early fears that manifest themselves years later, when threats are gone.

From college presidents to real-estate agents, many people experience the nightmare when the cramming is long past.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at