Monday, May 10, 2010


Final Exam Formats

Without giving too much away, I'll just say that my college uses one format for final exams, and is considering switching to another in a couple of years.

I've been thinking about the relative advantages of different formats, and would love to hear from my wise and worldly readers about their experiences with the different schedules. I'll admit being pretty agnostic on this one.

The various formats I've seen:

1. Run the regular class schedule right up to the bitter end; let each class schedule its own final, if any.

Advantages: No schedule conflicts, no issue with some classes preferring papers or projects instead of exams.*

Disadvantages: Doing 'common' finals across multiple sections of the same class becomes impossible, and exams are limited to the length of a class period.

2. Use an entirely separate exam schedule, with every section of a given course (i.e. every College Algebra) having its exam at the same time.

Advantages: It's easy to give 'common' finals, which helps for both consistency and outcomes assessment. Exams can be of any length. In a perfect world, you could build in a 'reading period' before finals start.

Disadvantages: Scheduling conflicts (for both students and faculty) are pretty much a given; this is especially true for adjuncts who teach at multiple colleges, each with its own schedule. Also, professors who give final papers or projects may have an effectively shorter semester, creating considerable resentment among those who don't.

3. Self-scheduled or take-home finals.

Advantages: Scheduling conflicts are eliminated. Exams can be of any length.

Disadvantages: Who proctors them? Every student needs a different exam, or cheating will be insanely easy.

Different courses seem to lend themselves to different formats, which makes any collegewide scheduling choice likely to disappoint somebody. For lower-level math classes, I can absolutely see the utility of a common final. For English classes, I usually assume a final paper or portfolio. For music and theater classes, juried performances (which require long blocs of time) are the norm. But when it comes down to scheduling, either we have a 'final exam period' or we don't; we can't mix and match. (It's like the old joke about England converting to driving on the right: "the change will be made gradually." Uh, no.)

Wise and worldly readers, can you shed some light? Are there considerations that make one format a clear winner? Alternately, is there another format you've found (or imagined) that would square the circle?

* For simplicity's sake, I'll include "portfolios" under "projects" and "juries" under "exams," since I'm just looking at scheduling.

So for #2, you mean that all College Algebras take their exam at one time, all English 101s take their exam at another time, etc.?

Both of the colleges where I've worked have done the final exam schedule based on the time of day the course met. So, all courses that met on MWF at 8:30 had their exam at one time, all courses that met on TR at 10:00 had their exam at another time, etc. There were, as far as I can remember, two exceptions to this:

1.) If your course didn't meet at a conventional time, you picked the exam time that was closest to your class meeting time. (So, if your class met MW at 1:30 and there was only an exam for MWF 1:30, you'd have your exam then.)

2.) If your class met in the evening (usually 5pm onwards), you had your exam during the scheduled class meeting time in exam week. Evening classes that met twice a week would have to have a 2-part final.

The CC where I worked had another interesting policy. They said that students were not required to take more than two final exams in any one day. If for some reason you ended up with three final exams scheduled for the same day, you could arrange for a makeup for the third exam. No one asked me for this when I taught there, so I don't know how often it is put to use!
Even if each student has a different exam, cheating is still insanely easy for a take-home exam.
Oddly, we use a third format. We have a final exam week (and instructors are told they may not give an exam in the week before finals), During our regular term, we have classes that start on the half-hour (8:30, 11:30, 2:30 5:30) and on the hour (10, 1, 4, 7). Most of hour classes are two-day-a-week.

What we do is this: On the Monday of finals week, classes that meet MW that start on the hour have their finals. On Wednesday, the MW classes that start on the half-hour have their finals. (Similarly for the TTh classes.; we alternate which set of finals are on ehich days.) The final exam period is 2 hours.

There are occasional problems, but it generally goes smoothly.
My CC also has an exam schedule based on course meeting time. For a while we had issues with conflicts (most often it was instructor schedule conflicts) but they worked it out by adding another block to each exam day and having the evening classes start exams at 7:00 PM.

This is very similar to the way the 4-year schools do it in our area
First, a comment about "professors who give final papers or projects may have an effectively shorter semester, creating considerable resentment among those who don't." under your item 2. Those professors will find a way to have a shorter semester no matter what system you use! We require that all classes meet during the final exam period, even if it is only to review projects or have a discussion.

I'm with the others here, in that our college does none of the above. We divide finals week into 2-hour blocks with half hour breaks. Some blocks are assigned for common finals, all of which are for large DAYTIME math classes. Adjuncts and working students have 3 months warning for any schedule shift. All other classes are assigned based on non-overlapping start times so students (theoretically) could not be enrolled in two with the same exam day. Where I was a grad student, we had a common exam period for all of the different "first year" physics classes that (theoretically) could not be taken at the same time.

The decision of what classes have common finals appears based on two things: (1) they actually give N versions of the same exam to all sections of the course, (2) the group taken together needs almost all of the large rooms or lecture halls on campus to give its exams with space between students in the seats.

I don't know of any place that has common exams for composition classes.
Like pretty much all the previous posters, we don't use any of the options Dean Dad mentioned, we use the separate exam week with exam times based on (but not the same as) meeting times. This solves both the time problem (exams blocks are 3 hours) and the conflict problem. It doesn't solve the common final problem.
I have been at schools under all three systems, and I vastly preferred #2, at least from the experience of a faculty member. Administrative headaches were the smallest under this system, and it did allow for some flexibility.

Specifics that I think made it work well:
1. It was not required that courses have final exams.
2. There was a short "reading period" between the last day of classes and first day of exams.
3. There were to be NO TESTS and NO MAJOR ASSIGNMENTS due in the last week. This point was particularly important in making things fair, and it was strictly enforced. Major assignments could not be due the last day of class; they either had to be due at least a week before the end of classes, or at the end of the exam period.
My school is the same as many others mentioned, exam times are based on the regular class meeting time. There is a complex, rotating final exam week schedule such that if you teach Monday at 11, you don't also have the last day of finals at 6pm slot.

In order to accommodate common exams, instructors (or departments) have to request them. They are always scheduled for the 8:30am time slot that is reserved for common exams. The registrar does a surprisingly good job of arranging them such that conflicts are extremely rare.
Every school I've been at sets final exam times centrally, based on meeting time. This allows predicting the time far in advance, so that schedule conflicts can be handled. Various standard policies for students having too many exams within a short period. I don't see why any school would NOT do this--it solves 90% of the issues, and enables a final exam longer than a class period, which seems critical to me (when I TAed, 80% of acing a midterm was knowing how to manage a 50-minute test). I have run into very few schedule conflicts in 16 years of this system.

One school lets instructors request a combined exam, which is set in the evening---this request has to be made early enough that students know it will be a combined exam before they register. Presumably a dept could do this for College Algebra, etc.

The central schedule can be combined with #1 and #3. Technically it's not allowed to give final exams in the last week of classes, but there's a loophole, or people just break the rules. I usually make final papers due during the exam period, and I've collected take-homes then as well.

My honor code SLAC also allowed profs to pick Take-Home and Self-Scheduled, which were administered by the Registrar---you went to pick up an exam, took it in the building in rooms set aside, and had to return it within two hours for Self-Scheduled, or 24hrs for Take-Home, etc. I've also seen law schools offer the Self-Scheduled option.
Ah the joys of teaching physics. If you write the exam well, cheating isn't really an issue. People who don't need to don't, and those who need to really won't do so well anyways.

Only place I've ever been where registrar did not assign final times, well, actually they did but grad students have no power, who's going to complain...
At my undergrad school, we had 2 weeks of finals (3h each). If you gave a final, it had to be in this period, and it was set by the school. Evening classes had evening finals (6-9), daytime classes one of the two daytime slots (9-12, 2-5), courses had common finals, and a conflict is three exams in a row, on one or two days. A conflict must include an evening exam.

This meant that exam schedules were set well after course change dates, and the school publicized that very well.

Common midterms (or midterms that were longer than the class length) requested an evening midterm slot before classes started, and the midterm date was announced from the first day of classes. There was a hierarchy of midterms, so if you conflicted there was a rule about which midterm got priority. I have no idea how this was decided.

There was also some set of rules about class work in the last week before exams, but I do not recall them.

It was fairly effective. Faculty who had two exams on the same date would hold the exams in the gym so they were available to both groups of students. Faculty were required to be there for minutes 60-120 of the exam, the rest was proctored by grad students or staff earning extra money.
In our CC, we have a reading day followed by a final's week. All finals follow the same regular semester class schedule, so finals must be taken during regular class time. Finals week is actually a part of our semester, so we have to meet during finals with our class whether we have an actual final exam or not -- otherwise, we haven't met enough class periods for the semester.
Another possibility, which was in place at the small college I attended: self-scheduled exams that had to be taken in defined time slots. You went to the building where your exam envelope was available; signed out your exam; went to one of the proctored rooms; and returned your exam to where you signed it out. Of course, you have to trust students will follow an honor code regarding, say, taking the exam they picked up rather than arranging a hand-off. It was great as a student: you could choose the order of your exams as well as how many you took each day. Presumably faculty could grade as exams were handed in or wait until the end of exam period.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?