Designing Final Exams

Teachers should design finals to be culminating learning experiences. In an important book (Assessing Student Performance: Exploring the Purpose and Limits of Testing, Jossey-Bass, 1999.) on student assessment (and academic ethics), Grant Wiggins claims that many of the reasons students focus on grades (and get involved in cheating) is because assessments depend on secrecy more than successful mastery. Here are some immediate steps you can take to help your students complete their final examinations successfully.


The most common problem with composing final examinations, as well as other kinds of tests, is that they can be easy to write and score, but hard to write well and limited in what they measure.

Checking Goals.

Good exams keep learning goals in the forefront. Instead of listing test items, review the skills you set as goals. Choose the type of test format that elicits this kind of performance. Multiple formats on the same exam allow you to target various skills.

Student Questions.

To help build up a bank of good questions, ask students to submit questions (and answers) that you can use on the final. You learn what they think is important and they start thinking about the material beforehand.

Preview Questions.

Give students a pool of exam questions or access to prior exams. Rather than narrowing their study, this will sharpen their understanding of important discriminations. You will also remove surprises that hinder real performance.

Real Materials.

Bring some real materials into the final. Follow a video with some written questions. Have students respond to articles they bring to the final exam using your questions or guidelines. Or, have students leave the class for fifteen minutes and return to answer questions based on their observations.

Reducing test anxiety is also important for improving the accuracy of your information about a student’s knowledge of course material. Here are some hints that can help.


Take five minutes to remind students how to take this kind of test. Offering thoughtful strategies may help redirect some of the panic caused by the test situation. Offer suggestions while giving clear instructions about time and other test conditions.

Stress Reducers.

It is okay to lighten the atmosphere with gentle humor or words of encouragement. The mood should be one of relaxed work, not fear. Add encouraging comments or helpful advice on the test itself.

Second Chances?

Unless your field is one where people only get one chance to do it right, you might get a more accurate measure of their knowledge by creating second chances. Some interesting tactics you might try include official crib sheets, “buying” information during exams, question commentary, blank questions, and extra-credits.

Final Assignments

Final written assignments — whether project reports or essay responses to take-home questions — are another common way to assess how much students have gained from the semester’s learning experiences. Help students learn the best ways to demonstrate their knowledge with these tips.

Review Criteria.

The criteria you handed out initially are more meaningful now that students are actually working on them. Take time out in class and have students discuss expectations or problems related to these standards. Share examples. This should help you uncover any misunderstandings.

Editing Cycles.

Have students bring in drafts (or parts) of their final project. Students can review each other’s work and offer advice (especially if you provide written guidelines). Common issues can be discussed with the whole class.


Include an assignment to the project that prompts thoughtful reflections about the writing process. Reflections may describe how the material changed their thinking or how they overcame obstacles. Help them see how they have grown and help yourself better understand the learning they have achieved.

Final Comments

The more you focus final activities on successful performance instead of outguessing the professor, the more your course will continue to support learning. Two last, general recommendations: First, use real world guidelines for determining the best testing conditions. Our habitual use of isolated, timed, written responses to secret questions was designed to simulate real world stress conditions facing military officers. Not many academic professions expect similar knowledge performances. Design your finals to match your conditions. Second, encourage students to work in groups while preparing for your finals. Offer specific review activities that involve sharing, responding, or discussing. Those who cannot meet with peers might ask friends or family to help. With finals, the teacher wants closure with dignity, closure that underscores the information and skills absorbed and opens the doors to future connections.

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