Final Exams

Exams remain a popular form of capstone assessment. There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is their efficiency—few other forms of final assessment are as effective at motivating students to review large swaths of the material covered over the entire semester with an eye to synthesis and distillation. By comparison with a research paper or other common forms of end-of-term assessment, final exams ordinarily have the distinct advantage of standing "outside" the term, giving students the impetus to reflect back on the totality of their learning without consuming significant amounts of in- or out-of-class time during the semester itself.

Yet in some ways, these (ordinarily) advantageous qualities can also pose challenges, or even become liabilities, in the irregular moment in which we find ourselves. With the move to remote teaching and Emergency SAT (SEM) / Emergency UNSAT (UEM) grading, the ordinary boundaries between synchronous, in-class work and asynchronous, out of class assessment are already changing, and the extrinsic motivation of grades—on which, admittedly, final exams depend rather more than other, more generative forms of capstone assessment—has decreased significantly. Given these facts, how might you modify your plans for testing students?

When considering any modality of assessment, it is key to begin by asking what you hope students will achieve or demonstrate in this moment of assessment—a moment that, again, is much different than what you likely imagined when you originally planned your exam. Within our new context several things have changed. These include:

  • The conditions under which students are taking exams. Can you guarantee that all of your students have an equitable experience sitting for a final exam, given the significant variance in their living situations and access to technology / other resources?

  • The ongoing, formative feedback that prepared students for the final exam—which likely included a wide range of interactions, including a stream of letter grades as well as face-to-face interactions.

  • The type of feedback you intend to generate from the exam. (The Office of Undergraduate Education has provided more information about what the new grading system means for assessment.) What does satisfactory mastery of your course objectives look like and how will you ask students to demonstrate their mastery?

Now more than ever we urge instructors contemplating a final exam to think intentionally and flexibly about how to meet their goals of assessing cumulative student learning.

Some things to consider

When designing an exam, we recommend considering the following:

  • What does each 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?

    • It is not uncommon to find some mis-alignment between the literal wording of questions and the examiner’s intent in asking them. (For example: a question that reads "list the causes of the French Revolution" might aspire to prompt a student to construct a creative argument about the causes of the French Revolution and yet result in perfunctory essays which merely recapitulate a course lecture.) 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?

Two additional considerations for our current context:

  • If a student answers a question incorrectly, are you confident that they misunderstood what you hoped they would understand? Or could the incorrect answer reflect something about the conditions under which they took the exam?

  • What do your students absolutely need to demonstrate in order for you to feel confident that they are prepared for the next semester or next course in a curricular sequence?

Some thoughts on format

Exams are well suited to measure how well students remember content. A closed book exam measures that in a particular way. You can find advice on how to administer a closed book exam while teaching remotely from the Office of Undergraduate Education here. During this time of disruption, a closed book exam may provide a skewed measure of student learning as exams will reflect the conditions (is there a printer, how reliable is the internet connection, how much has a student been affected by the pandemic, etc.) in which the student has taken the exam as well as their recall of information.

Exams can also be used to test higher order learning and giving an open book exam can help avoid some of the noise produced by closed book exams. Asking students to describe, apply, analyze, evaluate, or even create will require that students remember and understand material. What would your exam look like if you attempted to "Bloom up" the questions (i.e. rewrite it to address a higher level within Bloom's Taxonomy)?

Don’t forget the scaffolding

When giving an exam in-person or remotely, scaffolding is important. 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 guidance or feedback on how to answer those questions. This is especially true now that we have adopted a panoply of new instructional technologies—the fact that students can be proctored through their webcams, download a time-sensitive document from Canvas, and scan and submit their answers through a smartphone app doesn’t mean that they will be prepared to do all of those things at the same time as they are managing the ordinary stress associated with a high-stake assessment.

As with any other assignment, it is important to scaffold the kinds of intellectual (and technical) 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 your class meeting or in a recorded 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;

  • giving students practice and feedback on answering exam questions in the form of formative quizzes; and

  • (insofar as you do intend to ask students to master a new workflow for accessing and submitting a time-limited exam) conducting an ungraded "dry run" well in advance of the exam itself.

Academic Technology for the FAS / HUIT

Your starting place for learning about and accessing many of the technological tools you may need, such as Zoom, Canvas, and related plug-ins.

The Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL)

VPAL convenes university-wide conversations about teaching and pedagogical research, particularly in the online space.

The Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE)

OUE oversees, and stewards resources devoted to, the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard College..

The Division of Continuing Education (DCE)

DCE offers a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online courses, and their staff are experienced in thinking about multiple ways to achieve your goals through different mediums.

SEAS and the Division of Science

Advice on teaching in the sciences.

The Harvard Libraries

Request help modifying/troubleshooting your research-based assignments.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Schedule a consultation with the Bok Center's Senior Staff. (Please note that consultations are available only for Faculty and Teaching Fellows in the FAS.)

Faculty can visit our daily office hours, every Monday–Friday 10:30–11:30 AM; register for a one-hour practice teaching session; and request in-class support for your first Zoom meeting.

Daily Office Hours  |  In-class support

Teaching Fellows can attend the Fall Teaching Conference, which includes both asynchronous Canvas resources and synchronous sessions devoted to collaboration and practice.

Fall Teaching Conference

The media production staff of the Bok Center's Learning Lab can provide consultations for faculty teaching Harvard College courses using Zoom and other modes of media capture. We can provide suggestions for setting up remote video capture environments in your home or office, and on ways to integrate media into your courses.  Please contact us if you would like to discuss your needs with our staff.

Email the Learning Lab  |  Request a Media Tutorial

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