Final exams remain one of the most common genre of capstone assignments, set at the end of courses in order to give students (and instructors) the opportunity to synthesize and reflect on the full arc of the semester. To some degree, the popularity of exams among instructors and students may owe something to their sheer familiarity. Often, because instructors assume that students are familiar with the form, they also assume that students need relatively little preparation in order to do well on them, thus freeing up class time for more content coverage. This is not always the case, however, and in order for exams to fulfill their potential for assessing certain levels of understanding, instructors must be clear about the purpose of what they will ask students to do, write good questions, and scaffold students into the exam.1
When considering including any assignment modality in a course, it is important to begin by asking what you hope students will achieve or demonstrate in this moment of assessment—not only content, but also intellectual skills. Exams are ideally suited to assessing how well students remember and understand content; other modalities of assignment, however, may be more apt for testing higher order learning. It is important to select your assignments based upon your goals and objectives. If you hope to prepare students to act in a particular way outside the classroom, an in-class exam may not be the best (or most complete) form of assessment. If you think you may need more than exams to help students fulfill your learning goals, you may want to visit our pages on how to write an effective assignment prompt or capstone assignments in general.
In our experience, there is no shortcut to writing clear and effective exam questions—the best questions will emerge only with time, as you draft, workshop, revise, and iterate them in the company of colleagues. As you go through this process of iteration, you should consider:
- What does the question ask? (I.e., can you put the question clearly in your own words?) Does it explicitly ask for your intended answer?
- Is it clear what a perfect (“full-credit”) answer would look like for each question? What might a partial credit answer look like?
- If a student answers it correctly, are you confident that they understand what you hope they understand?
- What Bloom's level is the question at? As you may recall from our page on taxonomies of learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy can be especially helpful in evaluating the alignment between your objectives and the verbs you are using to prompt students. Do you want students to create something new? Does your exam use a corresponding verb or does your question or series of questions ask students to do something lower-level? In many cases, instructors may benefit from attempting to "Bloom up" a question (i.e. rewrite it to address a higher level within Bloom's Taxonomy).
Instructors looking to delve deeper into the creation of effective exam questions may wish to consider enrolling in our Bok Seminar on "Problems and P-Sets: Creating and Teaching Questions in STEM."
The final exam shouldn’t be the first time your students encounter a particular format or genre of question. It also shouldn’t be the first time they receive feedback on how to answer those questions. Instead, just like in any other assignment, it is important to scaffold the kinds of intellectual work which students will be asked to perform on your exam, providing practice and feedback before summative moments. There are many ways to scaffold answering exam questions, including:
- providing examples and demonstrating how you would answer them during lecture;
- having students work together in groups during class to answer questions and then bringing the group together to go over the answers;
- providing examples of questions, and asking students to write their own questions; and
- giving students practice and feedback on answering exam questions in the form of formative quizzes.
1 B. A. Chansarkar & U. Raut‐Roy, “Student Performance Under Different Assessment Situations,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 12:2 (1987): 115–122; Susan A. Stearns, “Collaborative Exams as Learning Tools,” College Teaching 44:3 (1996): 111–112; Graham Gibbs & Claire Simpson, “Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1 (2005): 3–31; David Jaffee, “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (22 April 2012); Anthony Crider, “Final Exams or Epic Finales,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (27 July 2015); Jim Turner & Gemma Briggs, “To see or not to see? Comparing the effectiveness of examinations and end of module assessments in online distance learning,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 43:7 (2018): 1048–1060; UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning, “Alternatives to Traditional Testing.