“Too often, we settle for dreams that merely scratch the surface of our abilities and then wonder why we are dissatisfied with the results.”

From the book:   Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor

By:   Joe Hoyle (to be published in January 2014)

Returning from Thanksgiving break, virtually all college teachers start looking forward to creating and then grading final exams.   It is a necessary part of the job but it is also an event that can impact the education of each student rather significantly.   Below is a rewritten version of a blog entry that I posted 3 ½ years ago.   I thought it made a good point back then.   I believe the same thing today.


Why do you give a final exam to your students?
What do you hope to accomplish?
I have talked with many professors over the years and their strategies for final examinations vary greatly from one to the next.  Here are several typical strategies:
--It is a comprehensive three-hour examination on the material from the entire semester with a major grade component.    This seemed to be the strategy most of my teachers employed when I attended college back in the 60s.
--It is a one-hour test covering just the material since the last hourly exam with no added weight in comparison to other tests.
--It is basically ignored because the student’s work for the entire semester should be more important than what they can do on one day at the end of the semester.
--It is a little harder than a one-hour test but a student can only improve his or her grade; the final exam cannot hurt the course grade.

I do know that as I walk through our building during final exam week most students seem to leave well before the time limit is reached. I am not sure that many final exams are still three hours in length.

I have always been interested in the final exams that are given by some law school professors.  The entire grade for the semester is based on what the student can do on the final exam questions.  Nothing else counts.  The rationale is that, if you are going to be a lawyer, you need to be at your very best every day that you walk into court no matter what is thrown at you.  There can be no down days.

However, I am teaching 19-20 year old sophomores and juniors in college and not 25-30 year old law students.  I am afraid that I would have students facing nervous breakdowns if I put the entire grade for the semester on the final exam.

So, what are my goals for a final exam? Psychologically, what am I trying to accomplish?
---I want students to stay emotionally involved with my course all the way through the last day of the semester.  I am not interested in them quitting early.  Thus, the final exam has to count enough to make it worth their time to keep working.  In my classes, the final exam is roughly 35 percent of the overall course grade.  I have found that this is enough to keep them emotionally involved until the very end.
---I want students who do poorly on the first (and, even, second) test of the semester to have a chance to improve their grades.  If a student makes a C or a D (or an F) on the first test, it can be very disheartening.  It is easy to lose hope.  I do everything I can to keep them from giving up.  I like to be able to say “if you can show me that you can learn this material, you still have a lot of your grade left to earn on the comprehensive final examination.”  Nothing pleases me more than for a student to make a low C or a D on the first test and then come roaring back to make an A for the course.  That is hard to do unless the final examination has a pretty serious weight attached to it.
---Likewise, I don’t like students who do well on the first test to get complacent and think they have an A in the bag.  I want to be able to tell them:   “Good job on this first test but you need to realize that there is a lot of semester left and you need to keep up this level of work from beginning to end.”
---I want students to understand the material well enough that they can still answer questions from throughout the semester at the very end.  If we cover a topic in September, I think they should be able to answer a reasonable question on that topic in early December.  Because I want to stress understanding more than memorization, I don’t think that is too much to ask.

As a result, I do give a comprehensive final examination and I do grade it and that grade (for better or worse) counts roughly 35 percent of the overall course grade.  In my introductory financial accounting course, I want the first student to leave after 2 hours and the last student to finish at 3 hours. I like it when about half stay virtually the whole time.
For intermediate accounting, I want the first person to finish in three hours but everyone else is relatively close to being finished. The material in that course is so complicated that I don’t see how a final exam can take much less than three hours.

In writing the exam, I line up all the topics for the entire semester on a sheet of paper and pick one pretty much at random (deferred income tax assets, for example). I then ask myself—if one of my students is at a job in six-months and this topic is raised, what should I expect an A student to be able to remember after five minutes of review?  In all honesty, I would love to ask “what should I expect an A student to be able to remember immediately” but I don’t think that is realistic.  Students forget material quickly (even accounting). 42 years of teaching has shown me that students never remember quite as much as I might hope.

Based on the answer to the question of what I want them to remember in six months, I write a problem to test if they hold that level of knowledge.  I never want to ask an easy question because that proves nothing.   But, there is little reason to ask an impossibly hard question.   Writing a question that no one can answer will not provide me with any usable information.   
I estimate how long that first question will take the A student to answer and go back to my list and select another topic for another question.   When I have filled up my time allotment in this way, I quit.  

However, I then immediately construct an answer sheet.   I do not want to get to the final exam site and discover that a question cannot be answered because of missing information or that a typo is going to throw the students off track or that several questions are really easier than I had anticipated.   It is hard to fix a final exam once the test has been distributed.   The answer sheet is essential because it allows me to evaluate each question as well as the entire exam.   I cannot even guess how many mistakes over the years I have resolved in advance because I force myself to create an answer sheet.

Setting up the final exam in this way keeps the students (I hope) thinking about my course all the way until the end of the semester. I want accounting to be on their minds until the semester is completed.   And, it gives them a reasonable last chance to make up for any poor grades they might have earned during the semester.

What’s your philosophy? Why do you give a final exam?   How do you set it up?

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