The traditional college final exam takes place in a proctored classroom, within a set block of time. This introduces some challenges. It limits the forms that an exam can reasonably take, and the tasks that might be part of the assessment. It creates stress and pressure for students. The resulting grading load requiring a quick turnaround from the instructor encourages formats that are quick to grade, but not necessarily effective for assessing all students. And it may require significant logistical workarounds to accommodate students who need extended time or other disability accommodations.

The typical alternative to this limited kind of exam is a final project, which is more flexible, but may be unnecessarily complicated for some kinds of classes. You can learn more about creating final projects, which in many cases may be a good option. This article discusses alternative ways of doing final exams that are flexible, adaptable, and effective.

Assessing Your Exam Needs

When designing your exam, consider some or all of these questions. It is very helpful to know what you really need the exam to do before you design it.

  • Should it be cumulative?
  • What does it measure: knowledge, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and/or creation?
  • By what means could a student express knowledge and skill development?
  • How will it help your students make connections between the course material and the learning outcomes?
  • In what ways do the delivery and context matter? Are you measuring skills like writing, presenting, time management under pressure, and/or creativity? Is there an outcomes-based reason to have students physically present?

Strategies to Consider

The following are some less-common strategies that can help you create more effective, interesting, and/or flexible exams.

Take-Home Exams

Take-home exams are exams students are given a long window to complete (significantly longer than the task should actually take), allowing flexibility. Take-home is a great option for any exam for which a student might need to use sources, or if you want to include essay questions that might require a deeper level of reflection than students are likely to complete in an in-person timed exam. This model easily accommodates students who need extra time for timed assessments. It is best to design take-home exams as open-book and open-note.

Another variation on the take-home exam might be a test with a strict time limit that is “self-scheduled” to allow a student to take it when they are at their best. You can set up this kind of exam using Canvas Quizzes, which allow you to build timed tests; the student could open and start the test at any point during exam week, but it would automatically close after the set amount of time. (You can easily create a duplicate of the test with extended time for students requiring that accommodation.) Canvas Quizzes can also auto-grade certain kinds of questions like multiple choice, matching, and true/false, saving you time while leaving the more open-ended questions for you to evaluate.

Take-home exams are also compatible with snow days, other campus closures, and commute issues. A take-home February midterm is automatically safe from blizzard rescheduling.

Design to Encourage Integrity

One objection to take-home and self-scheduled exams is that they cannot be proctored. For many instructors, this raises concerns about academic honesty. Champlain provides originality checking software integrated with Canvas that makes it easy to compare written work to other sources, but this software cannot foil custom essay mills. The College does not provide proctoring software (such as Respondus), which creates technological inequities and an adversarial, mistrustful, and stressful relationship between students who feel like they are being spied on and faculty who are seen as embracing this invasion of privacy.

In short, you can never prevent all possibility of cheating. The better strategy (regardless of how your exam is administered) is to devise assessments that discourage it. Consider the following effective assessment strategies that resist plagiarism and/or unauthorized collaboration:

  • Short essays or other original creations that do not have a single right answer
  • Assessments that involve personal reflective writing
  • Authorized collaborations

Do you have additional exam strategies that have worked well in your class? Feel free to email to contribute! We might feature your ideas on this page or on the CLT blog.

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