Redesign your final exams to truly promote learning

Prevent the ‘cram and dump’ method of studying with these strategies.
By Dawn Wotapka

If there’s one thing on which teachers and students can agree, it is that final exams are the last step before a well-deserved break. But a few years ago, Joe Hoyle, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Richmond, began to wonder if the arduous tests were becoming a poor end to a great semester.

He knew that students were frantically trying to memorize — often at the last minute — every fact, formula, and definition they learned during the semester simply to ace the exam, instead of viewing the process as a way to showcase their learning. “The students frequently left discouraged,” he recalled. “The final exam felt like a ‘downer,’ and I didn’t like that type of conclusion for my course.”

So he tried something different: Instead of letting his students guess what would be on the test, Hoyle gave them questions that came from material covered earlier in the semester, to allow them to prepare.

The change in approach worked, he said: After he adopted it, “without a doubt, the final exam became a learning process.”

Finals can promote deeper learning than memorization

Christine Cheng, Ph.D., an assistant professor of accountancy at the University of Mississippi, calls the process of frenzied studying some students undergo “cram and dump.” It doesn’t serve students well because they don’t truly learn material designed to benefit them for years to come, she said. They “are never going to have more time than while in school to learn the foundational knowledge that will serve them throughout the career,” she pointed out.

To be sure, final exams have a purpose. They help faculty evaluate how well they have taught and provide incentive for students to stay engaged during the semester. They ensure that “students have built a knowledge and understanding of everything taught in a course,” said Matthew Hutchens, J.D., a lecturer of accountancy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For these reasons, final exams aren’t going anywhere, but they’re increasingly “moving from an emphasis on remembering and understanding to focusing more on actually analyzing and applying rules to real-world fact patterns,” Hutchens said. For example, instead of just asking whether a payment made by a taxpayer is deductible, faculty could give students a case study or a simulation-based question about actions a taxpayer took over the course of the year, then ask students to spot potential issues, determine the resulting tax consequences, and/or come up with follow-up questions or suggestions that could help the client improve their outcome, he said.

“This type of critical thinking is helpful for both the real world when students get out into practice and also for the CPA Exam, which tests many important topics at these higher cognitive levels,” Hutchens observed.

Here are steps you can take to ensure your final exams spark learning:

Provide guidance on what to study. As mentioned earlier, Hoyle gives students around 25 questions to study from about a week before the exam. He warns students that, while the concepts the questions cover will be the same as they learned during the semester, at least one variable will be different: A loan of $100,000 might become a loan of $200,000 or a buyer might become a seller, for example. This allows their studying to move beyond “trying to guess at topics or remember hundreds of pages of material, much of which might not even appear on the exam,” he said.

Offer practice exams. While textbook publishers now make exam questions and answers available to faculty who use their books, designing your own test puts you in control of the questions and format, and lets you focus on things you deem important. Hutchens writes a new final every semester and makes the old exams available to students for practice. This approach offers students “more resources to prepare for the current year’s exam, and I have found that students end up learning more and performing better on the actual final once they have had a chance to take a practice exam,” he explained.

Allow notes. Some professors eschew the notion of closed-book exams in favor of allowing outside material. “My exams are open-book because the real world is open-book,” Hutchens said. “For tax, especially, I would never advise my students to give answers they were unsure about to a client without looking them up, so it seems like the same should apply to exams.”

What’s more, he said, because students know the exams are timed, they work to master the majority of the material so they don’t waste valuable test time looking up routine topics. “Students know that time is a valuable resource,” he said. “So, even though they could bring in every PowerPoint slide I’ve used or note that they’ve taken, they know that volume of material isn’t going to be helpful.” What works instead, he said, is for them to create “a concise outline or summary of what they’ve learned that they can quickly refer to.”

Add a project. To allow students to showcase what they’ve learned, some professors make the final exam a project or, like Hutchens, add a final project, such as a tax return for a hypothetical client or a nexus study for a fictional business, as a supplement. “Final projects are useful because even though they may not assess as broad a range of material, they can add layers of challenges and nuance that are not possible in an exam,” he said.

Consider extra credit. Finally, consider offering extra points that can relieve some of the pressure of scoring well on the last exam while offering students the chance to learn in a different way. Cheng offers limited extra credit opportunities to encourage students to attend events held by her department that feature notable speakers, while Hutchens recently started giving credit if students utilize his office hours after the midterm is graded to talk about the problems or concepts they missed.

Hoyle, meanwhile, sends his students outside the classroom. He offers up to five points on the final exam for visiting a list of preapproved local landmarks and sites, including the James River Park, the Richmond Ballet, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, or the Virginia Holocaust Museum. About 70% of his students participate, and his office wall is filled with pictures of his students at the sites.

“Most people would tell you that’s not the purpose of an accounting class. I would argue that is the purpose,” he said. “You can learn accounting rules and you can be a great accountant, but you have to have a life. I want them to have a happy life.”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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