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.

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