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How to Write a Final Exam

When you sit down to write a final exam, where do you start? Ideally, in the process of designing your course, you already put some serious thought into how to assess and measure student learning.  Perhaps you followed the steps of “backward course design”—a course design strategy which makes the development of an assessment strategy the second step of course design coming immediately after the formulation of learning goals and long before determining what content and activities will fill individual class days.  Or, perhaps you adhered to the sage advice of writing exam questions immediately after each class, when the class was still fresh in your memory.  If so, you already hold in your hand dozens of potential exam questions.

But, what if you didn’t?  What if you need to write a final from scratch?  Is there anything that you can do?  Yes, it is not too late.

First consider what you hope to accomplish with the final exam.  For example, a final exam could be…

  • a motivator for students to review what they have learned in your class;
  • an opportunity for students to think about and process course material at a deeper level (e.g. one could require student to apply methods and skills learned earlier in the course to new problems);
  • and, lastly, a chance to measure student completion of the course’s learning goals.

Second—with regard to this last possibility—master teacher, Linda Nilson (2010, 281-82), reminds us that student assessment should reflect and reinforce both your overall goals for the course and the kinds of learning accomplished in individual classes and assignments.  For this reason, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are your learning goals for the class?
  2. What level of cognition is required by each goal? (Does a given goal require low-level learning such as recognition and recall, or higher-level learning such as evaluation and application?)
  3. How have class sessions and assignments prepared students for these levels of learning? (E.g., How much practice do your students have at applying a concept to a new problem?)
  4. Can you think of questions that both measure student achievement of learning goals and reflect the kinds of learning practiced in class?

Third, get students involved.  Help students take ownership of the final exam process:

  • Explain to your students the purpose of the final exam
  • Review course goals and explain how you intend to measure these goals
  • Invite students to reflect on their own learning; for example, have students write about what they have learned and how far they have achieved the learning goals
  • Ask students to consider the course goals and write their own final exam questions


References and Further Reading:

Linda B. Nilson, Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Third Edition (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

For a wealth of ideas and strategies, see: Mary E. Piontek, “Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams,” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Occasional Papers 24 (2008).

Consider the do’s and don’ts provided by educator Rob Weir, “Having the Final Say” Inside Higher Education (2009).

For example:

  1. Don’t use the final exam to exact revenge on students who seemed disrespectful or inattentive.
  2. Don’t experiment with your final exam, but stick to the methods employed previously during the semester.
  3. Do prepare students by making instructions and expectations clear ahead of time.

More tips may be found at UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning

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