Some thoughts on final exams

I just finished grading my final exams--see here for the problems and the solutions--and it got me thinking about a few things.

#1 is that I really really really should be writing the exams before the course begins. Here's the plan (as it should be):
- Write the exam
- Write a practice exam
- Give the students the practice exam on day 1, so they know what they're expected to be able to do, once the semester is over.
- If necessary, write two practice exams so that you have more flexibility in what should be on the final.

The students didn't do so well on my exam, and I totally blame myself, that they didn't have a sense of what to expect. I'd given them weekly homework, but these were a bit different than the exam questions.

My other thought on exams is that I like to follow the principles of psychometrics and have many short questions testing different concepts, rather than a few long, multipart essay questions. When a question has several parts, the scores on these parts will be positively correlated, thus increasing the variance of the total.

More generally, I think there's a tradeoff in effort. Multi-part essay questions are easier to write but harder to grade. We tend to find ourselves in a hurry when it's time to write an exam, but we end up increasing our total workload by writing these essay questions. Better, I think, to put in the effort early to write short-answer questions that are easier to grade and, I believe, provide a better evaluation of what the students can do. (Not that I've evaluated that last claim; it's my impression based on personal experience and my casual reading of the education research literature. I hope to do more systematic work in this area in the future.)

More like this

One of the perennial problems of teaching intro physics is getting students to do their homework, so I was very interested to see Andy Rundquist on Twitter post a link to a paper on the arxiv titled "How different incentives affect homework completion in introductory physics courses." When I shared…
Over at Dot Physics, Rhett wonders about the role of homework in a world that includes cramster: Then what is the problem? The problem is with my jobs. Yes, jobs. I have two jobs. My first job is to help students learn. I am a learning-faciliator if you like. I do this in many different ways. One…
And lo and behold. Another semester has ended. I was going to post about somethings from my physical science course (for non-science) majors. Then I noticed that both Ethan at Starts With a Bang! and Farady's Cage posted about their semester reflections. I vote that the academic blogging…
I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. -Thomas Jefferson It's the end of the semester at my college as well as at many schools across the world, and I've spent the last week or so grading final exams. And while I was doing it, I noticed something…

I have taught large sections with multiple guess tests. I would make up questions covering the lecture before giving the lecture. After the lecture, I would get notes from my student assistant, so I would know what I actually lectured about, then revise the questions as needed, and incorporate them into the test file. I found it instructive to record one of my lectures and listen to it after a day or two had passed. I had forgotten a great deal of what I had lectured about.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Feb 2010 #permalink

most of principles of psychometrics that I know try to achieve higher internal consistency among individual items (so high correlation between items), since these questions are designed to measure a single concept, which is different from an exam.

and one way to increase cronbach's alpha is to increase the number of questions.