What is going to be on the final exam?” That’s the most common question I get from students this time of year and, frankly, it makes me want to pull my hair out! You see, I’ve spent all term meticulously outlining the major course concepts, carefully leading my students on a connected conceptual journey, leading them up the cognitive mountain to the grand finale that pulls all the ideas together in a symphony the grand masters of composition would find nothing less than awesome. Yet, somehow, they still want me to tell them what’s on the comprehensive final exam.

Bubble Sheet for Multiple Choice TestNow, I get it. I really do. Most of my students are taking three, four, or more other classes this term and they have a considerable amount to keep track of. Here at the end of the term, students are honestly trying to figure out how to prioritize their end of the term tasks and get the highest grades they can possible earn. They know—and I know—professors can’t ask a final exam question on every single thing we covered during the term, and students probably would appreciate some assistance in focusing their final exam preparation. And, students are not taking my class in a vacuum from other professors: Students are enrolled in other classes with impending final exams and many of those professors give end of term study sheets. In the end, it is probably a reasonably thing for students to ask for some guidance. So, what’s a professor to do?

Two important ideas are too often forgotten by professors at the term’s end:

IDEA #1: There are big ideas that professors want students to know five years from now

IDEA #2: There are factoids and minutia that professors do NOT necessarily want students to remember five years from now

The problem that pervades the comprehensive final exam realm is that professor’s unconsciously find that is much, much easier (and thus happens more often than not) for professors to write memory-level test questions than it is for professors to create integrated, high-cognitive level, big idea questions (that are not so often written because they are hard to write and sometimes awkward to grade). This problem of low-cognitive level versus high-cognitive level questions pushes all professors to most frequently create and ask test questions more often about factoids and minutia than any of us really desire. As a result, students want to know which factoids to study because that is the type of questions they will most often encounter from the cadre of professors they experience across campus.

Are you going to ask high level questions or low level questions? One strategy to write a more balanced exam is to create a table of test specifications for what you want your exam to look like BEFORE writing an exam—and before giving students any study sheet that they highly desire. A hypothetical example for a 10-item exam is shown below.


Memorization & Naming Calculations & Applications Evaluating & Synthesizing Ideas

-Big Idea #1

Q1, Q2

-Big Idea #2

Q3 Q4


-Big Idea #3

Q6, Q7

-Big Idea #4



-Big Idea #5


The underlying notion here is that you can’t ask about everything, and you don’t want to fall into the unconscious trap of only asking low-cognitive level memorization, vocabulary, and naming questions. Creating a table of specifications allows you to create an exam that is balanced in the ways you want it to be.

TryItThis is in stark contrast to sitting down with your notes or the textbook and just starting to write questions—be it multiple choice questions or essay questions. When folks just sit down and start writing questions, the most common result is a long set of memorization and recall questions with very few, if any, higher-level evaluation or synthesizing questions. To avoid this pitfall, design your exam ideal exam before you sit down to write it. Then, after writing a well-designed exam, you’re in a position to provide students with a study sheet that truly represents exactly what it is you want students to do to best position them for a successful final examination performance you can be proud of.

Research tells us that a comprehensive final exam does work in helping your students’ knowledge from your class have durability.  This is largely due to a well documented phenomena in educational psychology known as the “spacing effect.”  In other words, students will retain learning longer if they have had to learn and retrieve it several times.  If you decide to give students an exam review sheet, then I recommend that you tell them precisely what is actually going to be on the exam, so they can practice mentally retrieving that knowledge, rather that drown in trying to cram an entire term’s worth of lessons in preparation for your exam.  Tell them you will ask  this many vocabulary-memory questions related to Big Ideas #x & #y, and that you will ask that many calculation questions related to Big Idea #z, in our hypothetical example, so students know precisely what to expect, what to prepare for, and you will likely find that they will perform better on your final, even if it is a really tough one, and that they will remember the ideas longer.

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

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