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Cornell University

Writing Final Exams

Final exams not only directly test students’ content knowledge and skills, they also motivate students to spend time and thought studying the course material and synthesizing concepts from across the semester.  This focused review increases retention of their new knowledge.  Giving the students some guidance encourages them to study big ideas, connections of ideas, and the types of knowledge necessary to prepare for the types of questions you will ask.

As you write your final exam, here are some things to keep in mind to create an exam that’s most beneficial to the students and most efficient for you and your course staff:

Final exam content: Align questions with the course learning outcomes. Spread questions across the content areas and include a range of difficulty. You want to give everyone a chance to demonstrate competence on some questions, and you also want to differentiate levels of accomplishment.

Question types: A variety of question types can serve different purposes on an exam. Short answer questions can be good to show reasoning, but can sometimes be tedious to grade. Multiple choice questions can be used selectively. Use common mistakes or misconceptions for forming wrong answers. Avoid deceptive or tricky wording, though, since your goal is to assess conceptual understanding. Avoid true/false questions since they often rely on very subtle wording and have a 50% success rate for random guessing. Longer problems show students’ ability to solve a harder problem, combine concepts from across the semester, and carry the solution through to the end. Consider visual problems like having students identify and explain key attributes of a graph, sketch trends as parameters change, depict a solution algorithm in a flowchart, etc.

Planning ahead for efficient grading: As you’re finalizing the exam content and format, be sure to have a TA or colleague give feedback. A second (or third) set of eyes can help uncover missing information, confusing diagrams, etc. If you think in advance about how you will grade the exam, you can take some steps to improve efficiency for the grading process. Think about the point breakdown. Avoid placing excessive points on the hardest question. Leave white space commensurate with the answer length you expect for each problem. Gradescope is an essential tool for increasing grading efficiency, and by planning ahead you can leverage its capabilities to the greatest extent:

  • Have designated boxes for name AND netID for fast, accurate, automatic matching of students to exams.
  • For problems with a final answer that is a numeric value or short formula, have a designated “final answer” box. Gradescope can group answers based on the content of the box so similar answers can be graded at once. This makes grading much more fair, accurate, and fast. An example of an exam formatted with Gradescope in mind is available here.
  • For problems that conceptually take many steps to solve, it can improve grading efficiency to explicitly separate the steps into sub problems. That does have the effect of giving students hints along the way, so it’s a trade-off between efficiency on the grading side and testing student understanding of holistic problem solving. It’s a choice to be made while designing the final exam.