10 Steps to More Humane Final Exams

As this is the time of year when teachers and professors are writing final exams and students are studying for them (at least some of them), it is the opportune time to offer a few suggestions on how we can make final exams more humane. I am not convinced that most traditional final exams are a valuable part of education. In fact, the culture around final exams often distracts from the type of virtues that most of us want in our learning organizations. I’m especially critical of the traditional, time-based, and allegedly “objective” assessments that often take the form of multiple choice, true and false, and fill-in-the-blank questions. They do little to nurture an authentic culture of learning. Nonetheless, I’ll save that viewpoint, one that many in traditional education might consider more extreme, for another time. Instead, this article assumes that people are working within the dominant and existing system of final exams. Given that context, here are ten simple but significant ways to create a more humane context and culture for students taking final exams.

Test the Test

Is your test fair? Is it clear? How are you checking to see that the word choice and format of the text is not an unnecessary barrier for students? If the test is about finding out what students have learned, then it should not be a test-taking competition. Work WITH the students to devise a test that is fair, challenging, and has a good chance of measuring student knowledge and skill.

Go Easy on the Drill Sergeant Approach

What good comes from scare tactics? Some think that being extra tough and scaring people into studying is the way to go. In general, this will simply add more anxiety, reducing student ability to concentrate and prepare to the best of his or her ability. Why not take a more encouraging and coaching demeanor? Try being a compassionate coach and cheerleader more than a drill sergeant when it comes to test preparation.

Distinguish Between Rigor (Painful) and Rigor (Academic Challenge)

Rigor has multiple definitions. I’m all for creating challenging academic experiences, but there is no need to make it unnecessarily painful. If you go to the doctor to get a shot, they typically try to use the smallest needle necessary, and they have strategies to make it as quick and painless as possible. They don’t sadistically jab you with the largest needle that they can find. Let’s keep this in mind as we think about our test creation, how we prepare students, and how we deliver the tests.

Be Clear About Your Expectations

What will it take to be successful? Why not be transparent about that? What good comes from making it a guessing game?

Reconsider the Notion that Memorizing the Textbook is the Goal

I sometimes talk to teachers who like to throw obscure and “gotcha” questions on the exams to see if students read and nearly memorized the entire textbook. Is that really the goal of your class…textbook memorization? If not, go easy on this approach. The goal is not to trick or fail students but to measure what they have learned.

Check That You Are Assessing What You Said You Would Assess

If you provided students with a list of course objectives or outcomes at the beginning of the class, does your test align with those? If not, that verges on a bait and switch tactic. Test them on what you said they needed to learn.

Offer Tips for Success and Invite Students to Share What Works for Them

Why not offer some coaching and wisdom on what, based upon your experience, works best to prepare for the exam? You are not spoon-feeding students by being a coach and mentor. You are setting them up for success.

Find Ways to Celebrate Diverse Gifts and Forms of Growth Among Students

Sometimes tests are biased toward certain aspects of a course, but they don’t leave room for students to display other valuable learning from the course. Consider how you can design a test that gives all students a chance to demonstrate as much of their learning as possible.

Distinguish Between Worth and High Grades, as Well as Learning and High Grades

A person’s worth is not measured by final exam scores, so why not remind students of that? Also, I cringe when I hear people take an entire semester of rich learning and then reduce the whole thing to a score on a final. School is not primarily about getting passing or good grades, and when we make it about that, we are reducing the entire learning community to something far less relevant and meaningful. The goal is not to get a good grade. It is to learn what is important to learn, The exam is just a time to demonstrate what you learned. When we choose language that makes it all about getting good grades, we are cultivating a culture of earning over an authentic culture of learning, and that makes school ultimately less humane.

Make Student Success the Goal, Not Some Absurd Bell Curve

I remember talking with a professor who was delighted to see the even distribution of As and Fs, seeing this as a sign that his course was designed and taught well. I suggested that this might actually be a cause for alarm. Why didn’t more students reach high levels of mastery? Wouldn’t we rather that everyone learn a great deal and demonstrate that? The curve has no place in most learning communities. Maybe there is justification for it if there is some sort of exam that is part of selecting a few people out of a larger group, but courses are usually supposed to be about setting up a context where as many students as possible can learn and thrive.

Our classes are not factories. They are communities of people, and these ten tips are a good way to emphasize that fact during this final exam season.

Our Approach to Assessment is Holding Us Back in Schools

Back in April 2016, I enjoyed serving on a panel at an event hosted by Educause called Exploring the Next-Generation Digital Learning Environment: Opportunities and Challenges. My panel included three people. One focused on learning analytics. A second concentrated on student advising. I was given the area of learning assessment. The connection between these three areas is that they all rely on learner data. As such, all of this was in the context if what some refer to as the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment.

Talking about learning assessment is a bit tricky because not everyone works from the same definition of assessment. However, consider the following two uses of the word.

Assessment is a process of determining “what is.” Assessment provides faculty members, administrators, trustees, and others with evidence, numerical or otherwise, from which they can develop useful information about their students, institutions, programs, and courses and also about themselves. This information can help them make effectual decisions about student learning and development, professional effectiveness, and program quality. Evaluation uses information based on the credible evidence generated through assessment to make judgments of relative value: the acceptability of the conditions described through assessment. –

The National Academy for Academy Leadership 

Compare that with the following explanation from Duke’s Academic Resource Center.

Assessment focuses on learning, teaching and outcomes. It provides information for improving learning and teaching. Assessment is an interactive process between students and faculty that informs faculty how well their students are learning what they are teaching. The information is used by faculty to make changes in the learning environment, and is shared with students to assist them in improving their learning and study habits. This information is learner-centered, course based, frequently anonymous, and not graded.

Evaluation focuses on grades and may reflect classroom components other than course content and mastery level. These could include discussion, cooperation, attendance, and verbal ability.

While there are varying uses of the term, here we see that some use assessment as a non-evaluate and largely formative process. Its purpose is to help teachers refine and improve the learning experience for students.

Yet, if we look at various formal assessments and their uses throughout history, we see another perspective. In some instances, we see that assessments were largely used to identify, weed out, and qualify. Consider that the multiple choice test that dominates so many assessments in learning organizations, was used to test the intelligence of WWI soldiers. It did not initially get traction but was applied in school settings as the education system in the United States was becoming industrialized, with more of a mass production mindset.

Where assessments might have been a means of weeding out in the past, today our needs are different.  The college degree is like the high school diploma of the past to many. With the doors opening to college and the desire to expand formal education in the broader population, the goal is less about weeding out or restricting. It is now about identifying, supporting, maximizing impact, empowering, and even personalizing learning. This is an important and significant shift in the way we use and think about assessment, even as some still think of it in this older sense.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I tend to focus upon formative assessment because it is focused upon that which can help learners right away. It is the checkup at the doctor compared to the autopsy. The checkup allows us to suggest changes and prescriptions to improve a patient’s quality of life. When you get to the autopsy, that is no longer a consideration. It is just about getting insight that might help the next person.

When it comes to assessing learners, however, there are many perspectives to consider. There is assessing progress toward a standard or objective. This is about seeing how close or far one is from meeting that standard or reaching that objective. Then there is assessment focused on personal or relative progress. It is comparing how one progressed from where that specific person started. Did that person grow significantly or not? Then there is assessment focused on the nature of the progress, progress compared to some expected rate or type of progress (a typical student would be here by now). Next there is assessment interested in the process of the learning. It is not just about what you have learned but how you have learned, giving teacher and student insight into successful or less than successful strategies.

I contend that our approach to assessment must continue to change. If not, it will prevent us from accomplishing the broadening aims of education in the contemporary world. It will inhibit access and opportunity. It will also fail to help each student maximize personal growth and development.


A Tale of a Great Teacher and the Grade Awakening

Karen set high standards for her high school biology students and she expected them to meet those standards. Little did she know that this would be the year of her grade awakening. As a great teacher, Karen went out of her way to help students improve. Everybody knew this about her. Teachers and administrators respected her as a consummate professional. Students described her as one of the toughest teachers in the school, but also fair. Parents saw her this way too. They knew that she would push their son or daughter, and they also knew that Karen didn’t tolerate parent complaints that were really just cloaked tactics to manipulate the teacher into lowering the academic bar or giving their child an unfair advantage.

Yet, Karen wasn’t the sort of teacher who graded on a curve. She was happiest when every student earned an “A”, although that never happened. She wanted every student to succeed. It was just that she was not about to create some sort of false sense of success by adjusting the bar for each student so that everyone could experience the joy of success.

Every day in class, Karen restated her expectations, driving students to work as hard as possible for the next major test, paper or project. It was a relentless focus on improved performance and progress toward earning the highest possible grade on the test or assignment. There were no surprises. She told them exactly when they had to know and be able to do if they wanted to earn the highest grade. Then she worked with students individually and in groups to progress toward that goal.

For Karen, the best measure and motivator was the grade. A high grade means high performance and a job well done. As such, she put a great deal of emphasis upon earning high grades in her class and she took great care to clearly explain what goes into earning the best grades. If you wanted an “A” in her class, then you had to earn “A”s consistently throughout the class, from the graded assignments in the first weeks all the way through the final exam. You had to follow the instructions carefully, turn things in on time, make positive contributions to the class and much more. She carefully designed a grading system in her class to make sure that students did all of these things to earn a top grade. Again, she went out of her way to help students, but she was not about to lower or adjust her standards for anyone.

Because she believed so strongly in the grade as a measure of high performance, she spent lots of time finding the research to support this. She consistently shared this research about letter grades with the students. Students with high grade point averages in high school are more successful in college. They are more likely to get good grades in college and to persist through graduation. She found that grade point average correlated with happiness in life, positive habits and behaviors, even higher annual income after college. She shared these data with students and put posters of these facts on one wall in her classroom.

One year, two students left a lasting impression on Karen that challenged her to rethink her approach to grading and led to her personal grade awakening. It was Michelle and Michaela. Both arrived on the first day of class ready and excited to learn. Yet, they had some major differences in their backgrounds.

Michaela came from a family that loved science. Her mother was a well-respected brain surgeon and her dad was a professor of biology at the nearby state University. Since she was born, family vacations were a blend of recreation and research that took them around the world. She’d swam with the dolphins, gone scuba diving at the great barrier reef, helped her dad collect samples to protect endangered species of birds in the Midwest (he was an ornithologist), and much more. While her parents made sure that she was able to read and do basic math before even starting school, they also treated human anatomy and biology in a similar way since she could speak. Michaela had an impressive collection of knowledge by the time she arrived in this first day of high school biology class. In many other schools, she would have jumped to AP biology, but despite Karen’s lobbying for it, this high school didn’t have it.

Michelle grew up on the poor side of town. Her father passed away when she was eleven from a rare illness, and her mom worked as a waitress in the evenings and on weekends, and for a cleaning service during the weekdays. Michelle’s mom made sure the two of them had everything they needed to get by, but there wasn’t that much more. In face, Michelle had been working a part-time job every since she could legally do so, but her mom insisted that all of that money go into a savings account to help pay for college.

Michelle wanted to be a doctor one day. Initially inspired by seeing the healthcare workers care for her father, she wanted to be there for future families in such circumstances. In fact, for the past year, she worked at the local hospital in the cafeteria. While Michelle and Michaela didn’t know each other well, Michelle saw Michaela’s mom fairly often at work, and looked up to her. Michelle wasn’t always a straight-A student, but she worked incredibly hard, especially since she set her mind on becoming a doctor. Every “A” took maximum effort and focus for Michelle. She didn’t have the same sort of upbringing as Michaela, but both of them were excited for this biology class.

So, when it came to the first day of Karen’s biology class, these two young women were excited and ready to get to work. Yet, as the first couple of weeks developed, it was clear that they had different backgrounds. For Michaela, pretty much everything was a review for the first several weeks. This was easy and familiar, and she didn’t need to do much to earn that “A”. This was far from the common experience in Karen’s class, but it certainly elevated Michaela’s confidence even more, and she finished the first unit in the class with a perfect score. This is something that never happened in Karen’s class.

Michelle devoted hours studying those first weeks. She loved what she was learning and was fascinated with all of the key ideas. Yet, the weekly quizzes and graded assignments were not easy for her, at least not at first. In fact, her grades were not nearly what she wanted or needed to accomplish her life goals in those first weeks. After the first unit test, Michelle had a “C+” and started to doubt her ability to become a doctor one day, but she was not going to give up this easily. She set up a meeting with her teacher after school, explained the situation, and while holding back the tears, asked for advice.

Karen knew just what to do. She spent a couple of hours after school working with Michelle over the next week. It didn’t take long for her to figure out the few misunderstandings and gaps in Michelle’s prior knowledge that kept holding her back. Once they got these figured out, things started to work out much better for Michelle. She still spent three times as much time studying for this class as Michaela, but by the middle of semester, Michaela and Michelle were competing for the top spot in class on each new unit test.

Of course, those first weeks continued to taint Michelle’s grade. She knew that, with a perfect score on everything else in the class, her absolute best grade in the class was a “B+”, but she was committed to making that bets outcome a reality, and she did just that. When it came time for the cumulative final examination, Michaela was the most prepared student in class. In fact, when the grading was finished, she did something that no other student had ever accomplished in Karen’s course. She earned a perfect score, with Michaela earning a 95%, a very respectable second highest grade in the class.

As Karen reflected on the year, she could say with confidence that Michelle was the hardest working and most focused student that she had ever had go through this class. She also demonstrated the greatest level of mastery in the course. Yet, she finished the class with a “B+” because of those early grades. Michaela, on the other hand, was a very good student as well, but just didn’t put in the effort to achieve the level of mastery demonstrated by Michelle. Regardless, Michaela finished the class with a sold “A+” while Michelle did not.

This bothered Karen because she took the upmost pride in two key traits. She wanted to be a tough teacher with very high standards. She also wanted to be supremely fair. For her, this meant that the hardest working students with the highest level of mastery should be the ones with the highest grades, but this was clearly not the case when she looked at these two students. Something was not fair about this to Karen.

Neither Michelle nor Michaela seemed to mind the arrangement. In fact, they both seemed quite happy with it. After all, they’d been through years of a school system where what they just experienced was the norm. They both learned to work within the system and it generally served both of them well.

While your average teacher might have mused about this for a little bit and moved on, Karen could not let go of this. She saw this as a professional failure and began to carefully examine the performance of other students in the class as well. She consistently found that students with lots of prior knowledge coming into the class did better than others, even when those others earned higher grades during the second half of the class and on the final exam. In other words, according to Karen, her class grading system favored the more advantaged students and penalized the students who needed the full timespan of the course to perform at their best.

When the school year ended, Karen dedicated her summer to solving this problem. She read countless journal articles, reached out to assessment experts around the country, and built her own assessment expertise. When it came down to the end, she decided that a key to solving this problem in her class was learning to make better use of ungraded and low stakes formative feedback during the first half of the semester. As the class progressed, she would then add more graded and higher stakes assessments. She also decided to experiment more with standards-based grading, which would allow both her and the students to focus more on mastery of key concepts and less upon simply earning a specific grade. The standard-based approach, as Karen came to believe, had a much better chance of focusing students on what mattered most, the learning.

She spent the entire summer rebuilding her assessment plan for the class, and was excited to test it out during the first semester of the new school year. As she reflected on the summer and her past years of teaching, Karen looked back with pride but also a measure of humility. She was a veteran teacher and had this deep sadness that some of her past students might have finished her class with a false sense of their abilities based upon a grading system that she now considered unfair. At the same time, she was so happy to have made these new adjustments and looked forward to this new year.

What if Schools Made Progress Visible?

In The Game Changer: How to Use the Science of Motivation with the Power of Game Design to Shift Behavior, Shape Culture, and Make Clever Happen, Jason Fox offers anyone interested in the intersection of game design and motivation studies a thought-provoking read. For me, a key takeaway in his book can be summarized in a three-word quote: “make progress visible.” Amid the many theories and suggested strategies for increasing motivation in the workplace, Fox focuses upon this core concept. People are more motivated when their progress is visible, when individuals have some means of frequently seeing how their behaviors are impacting the extent to which they are making progress in their work.

Back when I started exploring why some students cheat and others do not, I quickly found myself traveling into a wonderful and richly rewarding world of research. I learned that the old-school policing and crime metaphors for cheating and school missed the mark. I discovered that one of the easiest ways to reduce cheating was to change the environment. Reduce student anxiety and increase student confidence going into major, high-stakes assessments. Then people don’t seem to have as much of a drive or temptation to cheat. That is what led me to my more recent work and writing about the power of formative feedback and assessment.

By giving people lots of frequent and focused feedback, we help them see whether they are progressing, giving them motivation and confidence to persist in their learning. In other words, we can design a learning environment that helps bring out the best in ourselves and others, and a significant part of it was very much in line with what Fox explains in his book. There is power in making progress visible.

This is such an incredibly simple concept, but one that can improve any classroom or school that takes it seriously and makes it a central part of how we think about designing learning environments and learning experiences. As Fox points out in his book, this is why so many of us are motivated by something as simple as creating a checklist and marking off items as we complete them. It is why, in the presence of massive and intimidating projects with little feedback, we often procrastinate and revert to small tasks that we can complete quickly and see our progress or accomplishment.

I would love to see a school take this single concept and make it a priority for a single school year. How would it impact the student experience, the school culture, and learner motivation? At the same time, there is no reason why this must be the sole responsibility of teachers. Imagine the power of helping students learn how to create their own mechanism of making their progress visible. By engaging in such an exercises, they will develop a deeper understanding of what progress looks like in a given domain, and then learn how to create systems that are motivating and allow them to make more consistent progress in their learning.