Rob Weir, in Inside Higher Ed, posts an article tackling final exam construction. He and I agree on the following: be fair; stick to the same range of assessment techniques you’ve relied on all semester; test only on material that was taught; prepare your students and be clear about your expectations; remind them of the honor code; don’t rush through the grading. Things we disagree about:
Make the final harder (and probably longer) than other exams. This is the culminating exercise of a course and it’s fair game to ask students to demonstrate mastery of the material. It should have a cumulative aspect to it, be it in the form of actual detail or in (forewarned) application of central concepts. I am currently teaching a writing seminar that’s themed around critical thinking. Students are expected to demonstrate mastery of a list of distributed elements of critical thinking (that were previously discussed and practiced). A computer science friend who teaches programming requires each student to write an original program. They must burn it onto a disc and submit it. If the program does not run, they get an F (but one more try at making it work). If it does run, they get an automatic C and mark ups are akin to scoring Olympic skating — one gains points via degrees of difficulty and elegance of execution. A final should separate the wheat from the tares. Made sufficiently (and appropriately) hard, it will help you assemble your final grade distribution. (If it doesn’t, make it harder next semester!)*
This is the most idiotic notion (make the final harder and longer) I’ve ever read with respect to final exams. In my opinion, you should have raised your expectations of them sometime around week 6–far enough into the course that your method and expectations are clear, after causal students have dropped, and before the midterm. At the end of the semester they’re sick, exhausted, and overwhelmed by all the back-loaded work in their 18 hours of courses. The last two miles are the hardest by definition, so the logic of raising the bar escapes me and contradicts his advice to remain clear and consistent. I have never, in 10 years of teaching (and 12 years of grading final exams) had a single student perform better on their final exam than on the other assignments during the term. Therefore, the only outcome of making the final harder is that the students’ grades go down. And this serves no purpose, and is in no one’s best interest.
* Mind you: I have no sense of how his illustrations (his final exam or the comp sci exam) make the point that the final should be harder and longer.