Students writing an exam Photo courtesy of Sage Ross

Higher education is awash in innovations for instruction and assessment. More students are engaging in flipped classrooms, connecting theory to practice through applied assignments, completing applied assignments, and using digital technology and learning management systems for enhanced learning both in and outside of the classroom.

However, despite all these changes, examinations remain conspicuously untouched.

Exams—like all other forms of assessment—are tools for demonstrating evidence of student learning. However, while educators are more regularly associating assignments and projects with specific learning outcomes, final exams remain isolated tests measuring what has been discussed and taught in lecture.

There are a number of reasons for this. Many educators do not question the pedagogical design of exams simply because it was how they were tested. Furthermore, many may face pressure from administrators or colleagues who expect examinations to be designed and delivered in the traditional fashion, even if they do not align with specific course learning outcomes like other assessments.

Fortunately, making final exams more of a learning experience does not require a significant exertion of effort or design. Instead, before preparing an exam identify its intent and tie that to a specific learning outcome. Once you identify these two pedagogical factors, the format (e.g., multiple choice, essay, proofs) and structure (e.g., in-class, take-home, two-stage) follows.

Identifying intent and learning outcomes do not need to be unnecessarily difficult or existential. For example when designing an exam for a senior-level accounting class, it is reasonable to infer that most of students intend to earn their professional accounting designations after graduation. Therefore, by designing the final assessment to be similar in question type and format to an official CPA exam, student course outcomes will be measured by also being aligned with professional expectations.

Exams don’t need to exist in isolation from other assessments. Approach them as a learning opportunity, rather than a measurement, and they will provide more meaningful insights.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.