Thoughts on Making Testing a Better Process – Part Two – The Final Examination



Before Beginning.  I attempt to read an hour each day.  I believe it is good for the mind to see and hear words formed into interesting sentences and insightful paragraphs.  In addition, I collect words that I read if I am not certain of the meaning.  I have 110 on that list so far in 2019.  My favorite new word for 2019 is “rodomontade” which means boastful or inflated talk or behavior.

Occasionally, as I read, something will strike me as pertaining to teaching, often in some indirect manner.  That happened this morning as I listened to, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton.  A renowned cellist recalls her emotions as she walked on stage to play.

     “Live performance is the precipice on which fear, anticipation, and joy met.  A unique     experience 
       shared between audience and performer.”

To me, that sounds similar to how I feel each day as I walk the 50 paces or so from my office to my classroom.  Even after 48 years, it remains the precipice on which my fear, anticipation, and joy all meet.  Next time you walk to your classroom, search your own head to see if you have those three emotions in relatively equal proportions.  If not, maybe that is one place you can start your expedition toward becoming a better teacher.  Perhaps, the first step to improvement is in your head.

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Blog Posting.  I have written almost obsessively over the years about the need to experiment as a required step for improved teaching.  Because your semester probably ended in the last few weeks, take a moment to count how many teaching experiments you tried and then judge how they worked.  Will you do some of them again in the fall?  How will you modify them before you try again?

In designing experiments, I like to focus on aspects of my course that are not going as well as I would like.  This semester, I decided to play around with the final examination—how could I use it to help my students better learn and understand.  It should not be just a torture device.

In my classes, we cover a lot of material over several months and then I give a four-hour final exam.  My complaint has always been that the students try to cover everything during their review sessions and often wind up at the mercy of studying the right topic.  They prepare so randomly that they often scramble up the knowledge in their heads rather than organize it.  For years, I have allowed them to bring in 4-6 sheets of notes to the final exam.  In that way, they do not need to attempt to cram all that material into their memory.  They read the questions and then consult their notes before working to solve the problem.

Nevertheless, there is still a “surprise” element in this approach.  In their note taking, students must anticipate what I will cover.  The grade difference between a student who guesses correctly and one who does not can be staggering.  That bothers me a bit.  I want them to use their study time to increase their understanding and then show that understanding to me.  Their grade should not be based on the luck of guessing my topical coverage.

This semester I tried something new.  I am not sure this would work in every course but some variation could work in many classes.  I walked in to class one week before the final examination and gave out 27 questions that I believed should be the foundation for our entire semester.  I felt these questions should each take between 3 minutes and 8-10 minutes to work.  I told the students that I was going to give them those questions as their final examination.  However, for each question, I would change one or more of the included variables.

--A monetary cost might be higher or lower.
--An interest rate might be changed.
--Expected revenue could be altered.
 --The number of years involved could be different.

The final exam would be those 27 basic questions but they would each have different variables.  The students did not believe me at first.  It seemed too easy.  They quickly came to see that the questions were all complicated.  But they had a week to work them and consider what I might change.  I eliminated the topical surprise element.  My parting words to them were key, “If you truly understand how to work these 27 questions, then you should get them all correct and will deserve to make 100.”

What happened?   I actually wrote 31 problems because I changed the variables in four questions twice.  Most of the students stayed for at least 3 ½ hours.  23 of my students made roughly the same on the final exam as they did in the course as a whole (a difference of 3 points are less).  Only 11 of the students made a lot less on the final exam than their grades for the course (the final exam was more than 3 points less than their overall averages).  For whatever reason, they did not enough benefit from having the questions in advance.  Only 13 of the students made a grade on the final exam that was much higher than their course grade (the final exam was more than 3 points higher than their overall averages.)   In truth, grades were affected less than I had expected.  Good students seemed to get good grades and struggling students seemed to get poorer grades.  Nevertheless, I felt the purpose of the final exam had been changed for me.  I believe most of the students used their time to really try to learn the material because they had a version of the actual questions.  I boiled the entire final exam experience for them down to two challenges:

“(1) – Can you work this question?
 “(2) – Can you still work this question if I change a few of the variables?

“Don’t try to relearn the entire semester.  Make sure you can work and understand these 27 questions.”

Added Benefit.  I told the students that they could work together before the final exam.  Because they had the questions in hand, they immediately began to create group sessions for the class where they studied together for hours to work those 27 questions.  Several students told me personally how much they had enjoyed studying with their fellow students to get ready for the final exam.  One wrote to me, “I have truly enjoyed being in your class, and while it was often intimidating, I know that I grew as both a student and a person this past semester. Also, I met a ton of people in the class and made more friends than I could have ever expected; the dynamic of the class truly encourages people to work together and collaborate, which is oftentimes hard to find."  I had never gotten messages like these before after a final exam.  “…made more friends than I could have ever expected.”  That alone makes me interested in trying it again next fall.

If you want to improve, you have to experiment.  Focus on something in your class that you think could use some work.  Try to do it differently.  Observe how it goes.


Offer.  I realize that most of my readers do not teach accounting but I will make this offer anyway.  If you will send a note to Jhoyle@richmond.edu, I will send you the 27 questions that I presented to the students in advance of the final exam and the 31 questions that I actually used on the final exam.  It might help you think about how you could do something similar.

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