It's almost final exam time
Ideas and advice for the end of the semester
Many of us are getting close to the end of our semesters. With that comes a host of things to think about with our assessments, including what to do about final exams. This week, I’ll dig into a grab bag of things to think about, ideas that can be helpful, and — especially — a plea to slow down.
If your assessments are based on objectives (as in standards-based grading), how will you handle assessments and reassessments at the end of the semester?
The first and most important issue is to avoid cramming in one last topic or assessment. That’s a recipe for overworking your students and yourself.
If you can, I encourage vigorously cutting out non-core material. Maybe this isn’t the time to try to fit in one last favorite topic that isn’t central to the course. We all have pet topics that we enjoy: Are they really critical to your course? Be honest with yourself. Looking back, I have never regretted cutting a topic from a class. It leaves time for students to breathe, think, and learn core ideas better, which I value much more than adding one last topic.
But even if you avoid adding one last topic, some topic is always the last one! When assessing end-of-the-semester topics, here are some options. Not all of these options are available to everyone, but perhaps one will be helpful:
Don’t assess the last topic. I know, I know, “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.” In my experience, that’s missing the point: You can still engage in rich, deep sense-making activities during class time. You just don’t have to assess them. How often do you find that students do a great job of learning and retaining something they see for the first time during the last week of class? That’s not how humans learn!
Loosen the requirements for the last few objectives. For example, if you require students to meet other objectives twice, could the last few objectives be met just once?
Have a quiz focused only on the most recent objectives. Don’t include reassessment attempts or earlier objectives. Let everyone focus just on the most recent material. Then make sure you offer at least one additional assessment opportunity, possibly on the final exam.
Let students assess the last objectives in different ways. Do you always use in-class quizzes or exams? Perhaps the last objectives could be done via take-home, asynchronous assessments. Or, perhaps students could complete a take-home worksheet instead.
You’ll also need to think carefully about how reassessments work at the end of the semester.
Be ready for heavier use of reassessments when planning your own workload. Reassessments are a critical part of the learning feedback loop. As you reach the end of the semester, students are in a better place to put everything together, and reassessments can enable this. This can lead to an increased grading load for you. You can avoid an avalanche of grading by setting reasonable reassessment policies and holding to them, but be ready for more students to make use of reassessments even so.
Give students time for reassessments. Reassessments can take a lot of time and effort for both students and instructors, even at the best of times. This is especially true if students need to think about both new class topics as well as older ones that they are reassessing. This is a big cognitive load, and deep understanding is not something that can be rushed. One of the best things you can do is to make time for students to think about past topics, put ideas together, and show you what they’ve learned.
A few weeks before the end of classes, set a clear final date for reassessments and advertise it widely. If, like me, you’re flexible about reassessments, students may be surprised by a hard final reassessment deadline. Announce the deadline early and in multiple ways. I recommend setting this deadline as the last day of classes (not exams), since that will give you a few extra days for grading and feedback. That also gives students time to use the feedback on the final exam, if you have one.
Finally, whatever your approach, help students understand what matters. Alternative assessment methods change the incentives for students, and not everyone will fully understand the finer details of these systems. This can be exacerbated by exceptions to the normal flow of things that happen at the end of the semester. Clearly identify and point out special requirements and pay attention to the overall grade structure. For example, if students need to complete all objectives in a certain group in order to earn an A, they should prioritize reassessing objectives in that group above others.
What about a final exam?
What is the role of a final exam in a class using alternative grading? There are many reasons to have one, not the least of which is that you might be required to have one. My institution requires that we have a "culminating experience" at (or due at) the final exam session.
In my view, a “culminating experience” is a chance for students to show what they’ve learned, how they’ve learned it, how they have changed or grown as a result. There are a lot of ways to do this that don’t involve frantically scratching out work in a silent, tension-filled classroom for 2 or 3 hours.
For example, in a final portfolio students assemble a selection of their work that shows how and what they have learned. You can give as many or as few guidelines as you like. I recommend including a reflective cover page, in which students describe their overall learning and how each item in the portfolio demonstrates it. You can find great examples of this kind of assignment in nearly every discipline — here’s are my current ungrading-ish portfolio instructions for a Euclidean Geometry course.
Another option is a purely reflective final exam, whose purpose is to get at bigger ideas beyond the explicit course objectives. Frances Su’s “7 Exam Questions for a Pandemic (or any other time)” is a wonderful model of this approach. As he says, these are intended to help assess “persistence, curiosity, imagination, a disposition toward beauty, creativity, strategization, and thinking for oneself”. Dr. Su’s ideas are written for math classes, but can easily be adapted for many other settings. They are also ideal for untimed, asynchronous exams.
But, perhaps you want to (or are required to) assess your course objectives in a more traditional final exam. A final exam doesn’t necessarily fit naturally in a grading system that’s focused on feedback and multiple attempts. So, what can you do?
Most directly, the final exam can be one last chance for students to meet objectives. Include a new question about every objective, and record students’ marks exactly the same way as for any other assignment. This can be the ultimate expression of belief in your students: If they’ve figured things out by the end of the semester — even at the literal last possible moment — that should matter!
Students can have a hard time understanding (or believing) this. Be ready for questions. Yes, really, it’s just one more chance. No, it doesn’t count towards your grade in any special or different way. No, you don’t have to attempt a problem if you don’t want to. A “one last chance” final can also lead to some unusual situations. For example, some students may have met the requirements for an A (or whatever grade they want) before the final exam. Do they need to come to the final exam? (Probably not!) Are you OK with that? (I am.) Be ready to address this head-on.
One thing to watch out for: Avoid making the final exam the only assessment opportunity for an objective (such as one of the last few objectives). Having just one chance to show understanding is the antithesis of humane assessment methods.
Another option is to require “re-certification” on some core objectives. This is closest to a traditional final exam. In this scenario, you identify a limited number of core objectives that represent the critical ideas in a course. Students must complete questions related to those objectives. You can also include optional questions on other objectives, as described above.
If your system counts the most recent attempt at an objective, then re-certification problems can count as usual. If you record only the highest mark earned, you’ll have to keep thinking. One option is to use the exam to modify the final grade: For example, if students meet all of the core objectives on the final, that could add a “+” to their final grade, and meeting half or fewer could lower it by a “-”. I recommend including a broad range of “neutral” ground that doesn’t make a big change to the final grade, since a final exam like this tends to be very high stakes, and you’re likely to be testing anxiety more than true learning.
What if you have a required common final, graded with points? This is common in coordinated multi-section classes. If you’re lucky, you might be able to align the questions with your objectives, and use one of the approaches described above. But more likely, especially if you also have a common “grading party”, you’ll end up with a points-based exam grade. If you have the freedom to do so, you could use a variation on the previous approach: A grade of (say) 90% or higher adds a “+” to the final grade, while 60% or lower drops it by a “-”. Anything in between doesn’t change the final grade, as calculated using your usual policies and objectives.
Time to breathe and think
The end of the semester is a busy time for students: projects are coming due; portfolios need to be completed; classes have one last homework assignment crammed in; and in all of this, there are final exams to study for.
This semester is worse than usual. My students have made it clear that they are exhausted beyond what’s normal even for this time of the semester. I’m feeling it too. I could go into details — but that’s probably another whole blog post.
At the best of times, the end of the semester generally doesn’t encourage self-reflection. And yet, reflecting on the past few months of class might be one of the most valuable things a student can do.
Perhaps the most humane thing any of us can do at the end of the semester is to give our students time and space to breathe, think, and reflect. Along the way, this can open the door for students to make connections and see ideas in a new light.
I try to encourage this by intentionally making space and slowing things down. As an example: This semester, I’m teaching a writing-intensive introduction to proofs course. My students assemble a portfolio of proofs that they’ve written and revised throughout the semester. I realized a few weeks ago that the 10th (and final) portfolio proof would have to be squeezed into a shorter-than-usual time at the end of the semester. Rather than doing that, I removed that proof (and adjusted final grade requirements to account for it).
Would I have liked to see their best work on that last topic? Definitely. Was I going to get it, on a short schedule, at the busiest time of the semester? No way. I went with the sensible choice.
But I also went farther: I replaced the final proof with an extra chance for students to revise an earlier proof. This has turned out to be much more effective than the normal two revisions they’ve already completed on each proof. That’s because students now have the time and space to think back to topics from earlier in the semester, rather than focusing on the newest and most pressing topics. They really have grown a lot during the semester, and this is a chance to apply their better understanding to earlier work. As a result, the revisions they’ve submitted have shown fantastic levels of improvement. My students are grateful for the extra time, but I’m grateful for the chance to see their growth. It’s easy to miss how much students really do grow during a semester, when you’re experiencing it in real time.
Another option is even simpler, if you can manage it: Have a work day. Set aside a day in class (perhaps some time just before Thanksgiving break?) with no set agenda. Each student can bring a reassessment to work on, or start assembling a final portfolio, or schedule an oral reassessment — whatever makes sense for your class. Promise to be present to address questions. You might be surprised at how much productive work gets done, and what connections get made.
We all need a bit of time to breathe and think right now, with the world exploding around us in so many ways. Don’t forget yourself at the end of the semester as well: It’s ok not to cram that one last topic or assessment in to your class. It’s even OK not to give students extra reassessment opportunities, if that makes more work than you can manage. Whatever you choose, err on the side of giving yourself and your students that extra bit of grace this semester.