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Alternatives to the Traditional Final Exam

As you prepare your students for the final exam, keep in mind the following: research has shown that students vary the way they study depending on how they think they will be tested. For example, if students think they will be tested on details, they'll spend their time memorizing. If they know the test will ask them to apply theories and concepts to unique problems and situations, they'll practice this skill. This means that preparing for the final exam can be a powerful learning experience if we give students the information they need to study effectively. Providing sample questions is an excellent way to do this.

The challenge is to create a final test which reflects what we most want students to learn. If you're interested in some alternatives to the traditional final exam, consider the following.

Open book exams

Because students can use books and notes, open book exams encourage students to learn to apply knowledge rather than memorize material. Open book exams are usually somewhat less anxiety-provoking than regular tests.

Crib sheets

Allowing students to bring some notes provides the same advantages as an open book exam. The process of deciding what to include in the notes, putting concepts into their own words, etc. is also a good learning experience for students. The instructor can provide appropriate parameters and guidance.

Take home exams

Take home exams allow instructors to give students problems which will take longer than a class period to manage and/or require the students to use a variety of references. However, they limit student studying to only the material related to the questions asked. In addition, instructors do not know if students received help in answering the questions.

Collaborative testing

Some instructors have students take multiple choice tests in pairs or small groups. This approach, which allows students to discuss the materials and "teach each other," usually increases the students' grasp of the material. There are several alternative ways to use collaborative testing. Some instructors allow students to discuss the test with their group, but ask each student to turn in his/her own answer sheet; group members do not need to agree on answers. Others require the group to come to an agreement on answers; each group hands in one answer sheet and each group member receives the same grade. A third option is a combination of the two: class members first take the test individually and hand in their answers to receive an individual grade. Then they take the same test (or portion of the test) as a group and individuals are assigned bonus points based on the group's performance (e.g., for group tests of 95% or better, individuals receive 3 bonus points, 89-94% receive 2 points, etc.). If tests are to be taken collaboratively, test items should require critical (analysis, synthesis, judgment) or creative thinking.

Student portfolios

Instructors in many classes ask students to prepare a collection of class assignments. These are most often collections of written work, but could also include computer programs, drawings, videotapes, or problem solving. Because portfolios contain a collection of student work, they often provide a more accurate picture of a student's achievement than a single test or project could. Requiring students to include a reflective statement that addresses the question of how this collection of work demonstrates what they have learned and/or how they have changed throughout the semester along with the portfolio can make this a powerful learning experience for students.

Performance tests

In a performance test students are required to perform a complex skill or procedure, or create a product to demonstrate that they can apply the knowledge and skills they have learned while the instructor observes and evaluates the process. These tests are time consuming and often difficult to grade, but they are much more appropriate for certain courses than a pencil-and- paper test. For this type of test to be reliable, an instructor should have a scoring guide which specifies the criteria for each grade.

Adding the option of explanation to a M-C test

Sometimes students feel that a multiple choice question can be interpreted in more than one way with one interpretation leading them to choose one answer while an alternative interpretation leads to another. Allowing student to explain an answer decreases student anxiety and often prevents penalizing the "good"; student for interpreting the question at a deeper level than was intended. This entails slightly more grading time for the professor, but those using this option report that students rarely include an explanation for more than one or two questions.