Final Exams or Epic Finales

Instead of a multiple-choice test, try ending the semester with one last, memorable learning experience

Noticias UFM / Creative Commons

July 27, 2015

"Goodbye," she whispered. And I never saw her again.

The course was introductory astronomy, a popular elective for students fulfilling a science requirement. After 15 weeks of lectures, discussions, problem-solving, quiz-taking, and group projects, she and her fellow students had nearly reached the end. The classroom was mostly silent as they worked on their final exams. She was done, though. And before I could even say, "Have a nice summer," she was gone.

Of course, that experience wasn’t with just that one student. It was with hundreds of them. One after another, semester after semester, they completed their final exams, said a hushed farewell or thank you, and left the room to move on with their lives.

That is not how a course should end.

Fast-forward a decade and nearly everything in that scenario is different. My class size has dropped from 30 students to 20. I’m team-teaching the course with a professor in the philosophy department. Instead of covering the entire universe in a semester, we focus in depth on one topic: astronomers’ search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Things are especially different on the last day of class. Students show up to a nearly empty room: no tables, no chairs, and no instructors. All they find is an 8-foot-tall black monolith (akin to the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and video cameras in each corner of the room. By the time the day is over, our students are in a backyard eating sunflower seeds with chickens. As odd as that may sound, it’s all tied to learning objectives from earlier in the semester — especially the chickens. Details of this particular experiential "exam" and the rubric we developed are published elsewhere. What happened after it was all over, though, is what convinced me that we had done something right.

Students applauded. They laughed. They thanked us. The next semester, some of them asked if we could keep on meeting. This is exactly how a semester of learning should end. Or, more to the point, this is how learning should not end.

Like so many other institutions, my university sets aside special days for exams at the end of each semester. In most cases, the final exam is intended as a summative assessment of student learning. While students and instructors alike may dream of a world free of assessment, the reality for most is that exams will remain a necessity for decades to come.

What is not fixed, however, is when or where these assessments are done. Just as many instructors "flip" the classroom by putting lectures online and helping students with coursework during class, we now have the luxury of conducting our exams in many different places and times. In devoting the last few hours of a course to a final exam, instructors waste a valuable opportunity to motivate students to continue thinking about the material outside of the classroom.

Instead of a final exam, end the semester with one last, memorable learning experience: an epic finale.

"Final" implies the end (or death) of something; "finale" suggests the end of an artistic performance, such as the ultimate episode of a television season or series. Where a "final" implies that one is done discussing something, a "finale" is something that inspires speculative discussion beforehand and reflection afterward. What happened to the Soprano family? Will Ross and Rachel get married? Is the Island really just purgatory? Who shot J.R.?

It isn’t surprising that students studying the out-of-this-world (literally) topic of aliens would talk with family and friends about the epic finale of their course. But could something similar happen in other classes? Could a subtle change in vocabulary lead to a larger change in how students and professors view learning across the curriculum?

Could exam week become the best week of the year?

The lone-question finale. My quest to reinvent final exams began when a colleague in art history surprised me with a description of her deceptively simple exam. She showed students a single work of art and gave them three hours to write a paper interpreting it. Struck by that approach’s sheer elegance, I decided to try something similar.

But the problem with having only one question on the exam is that it has to be a really good question. I began with "Modern Astrophysics," an elective for sophomores majoring in engineering and physics. After three "regular" exams during the semester, for the final I put them in in groups of three to tackle something new. In a mere three hours, each team would start and complete a research project, using data-analysis techniques they’d learned in class, in response to a single question.

It took me longer to come up with that one good question than it did to pick 100 questions for my introductory astronomy class. I also trimmed the question down to be as short as possible, requiring students to "unpack" it even before answering it. As one student wrote to me afterward, "I think I spent as much time figuring out what the question was asking as I did answering the question."

Each team found its own empty classroom, lab, or office in the science building, and for three hours I wandered from room to room. Quickly realizing the difficulty of the task I’d set for them, at each stop I answered a question or offered a hint to nudge them along. From their questions (and my eavesdropping), I learned more about what they had (and had not) learned during the semester than I ever had from simply grading previous exams. I had intended this exam as a summative assessment for the students, but its true value was the formative assessment it provided me about my own teaching.

This astrophysics exam also allowed students to experience the research process in an ultra-condensed format. Yes, it was tense at the beginning and frenetic at the end. But it worked. Within three hours, each group took my loosely defined question and made it specific. They divvied up the workload, processed data, and wrote a short paper about their results. I graded their papers, but the real value in those three hours was not the grade. It was the experience itself. As one student later wrote, most "exams just expected me to regurgitate the information I’d learned, but this one I was expected to apply the material to a new subject and come to my own conclusions. I really liked that."

The experiential finale. Some years later, when teaching the intro course on extraterrestrials, my co-instructor and I spent weeks crafting an "otherworldly" finale in two parts: "The Monolith" and "Animal Planet." We wanted our students to experience something akin to the books and articles they had read throughout the semester. After describing the finale to a colleague, he congratulated me on its cleverness but quickly noted that no one else could produce such an "experiential exam." Fortunately, he proved himself wrong.

Nick Proctor, a professor of history at Simpson College, teaches a first-year seminar on dystopian futures such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Just as I had tried to give my class an alien experience, he wanted his students to face a dystopian choice. They showed up for the final exam to find that the room had been reconfigured from its familiar discussion-circle layout into one where each desk faced forward, presumably toward authority. The professor, though, had been replaced by a webcam at the lectern.

On each desk was a piece of paper with instructions: "Welcome, citizen! You have some decisions to make. You must make them together. If you are one of the first 6 people to exit the room, you earn a C. If you are one of the next 7 people to exit the room, you earn a B. If you are one of the last 6 people to exit the room, you earn an A. Anyone still in the room in one hour will earn an F. After exiting quarantine, report to the BPAC Lobby."

Once in the lobby, students were given instructions on the second phase of their exam: Write a reflective essay on what happened in the first room. How did they respond? Some reported feeling so uncomfortable in that first room that they had immediately exited. They were followed by a few students who were convinced that the instructions were a lie. The "A students" congratulated themselves for waiting it out. Some even tricked the "B students" into leaving by arguing that the instructions must be false. (They weren’t.)

Two years later, students taking a similar test opted to protest and collectively refused to leave the room. They argued for an hour and finally pushed a handwritten manifesto under the door. "We take the F!" While in most cases such an action would be a sign of a class gone awry, in this case it was a deeply formative experience for both Nick and his students. Quite simply, the exam was a part of the learning experience, not the end of it.

The celebratory finale. The examples so far might imply that epic finales are possible only in oddball classes. Few professors teach courses on extraterrestrials or dystopian futures. Returning to one of my "regular" astronomy classes, students still spend the bulk of the semester on reading quizzes, lab reports, and even listening to me lecture a bit. However, shortly after the midterm, they also begin doing research on astronomers from the 1920s in order to stage their own epic finale, a role-playing debate on the final day. (One year they even decided as a class to show up in costume.) They still have a traditional final exam, given a week before the end of the semester, but we finish the course on a much more creative and boisterous note.

Like in the other epic finales, students clapped and cheered one another vigorously when it was over. Jane McGonigal describes this concept of fiero, Italian for pride, in her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Video gamers will play for hours each day, repeating the same tasks over and over for weeks, in order to defeat the final boss in a game and experience it. "Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity," she writes. "You know it when you feel it — and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: We throw our arms over our head and yell."

The spirit of fiero doesn’t happen only in video games. It can — and should — happen in our courses.

Your own finale. Simply relabeling a multiple-choice exam as an "epic finale" will not do the job. Nor are you likely to download an "epic finale" from a textbook publisher’s website. Finales are handcrafted. While none of my own followed a recipe, a few common ingredients might be helpful in brewing your own:

  • Low stakes. My finales are weighted to have minimal impact on students’ final grades, usually factoring in as 10 percent or less. The individual assessments that most affect their grades are done early and often in the semester. Given that a finale will probably be uncharted territory for both professor and students, low stakes ease the high pressure that come with mysteriousness and a new format.
  • Collaboration. On a traditional final, it is cheating for students to work together and anathema for an instructor to provide help. In an epic finale, collaboration can allow instructors to listen in, and even help, as students think aloud.
  • Something new. The easiest change is to tackle something new — perhaps the topic, the format, or both. Nearly all instructors cover material during a semester and test students on that same material during the final exam. However, with a few hours available, an instructor can introduce a new topic (say, Chapter 27 to a class that covered only Chapters 1-10) and have students apply what they’ve learned to a new problem. Better still, students might be asked to use a new mode of response (for example, an Ignite talk or a role-playing debate) that they have not yet done in class.
  • Mystery. As instructors, we often feel compelled to share the format of the final exam with students. If we don’t, they will ask: How many questions? Multiple-choice or essay? Which chapters will be covered? The old adage applies here: Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Oddly, when I tell students on Day 1 that I’m not willing to discuss the exam, there is surprisingly little pushback. Students want good grades but, being human, they are also intrigued by a mystery. Telling them almost nothing about the finale is the hook that makes it interesting.
  • Awesomeness. Perhaps the most difficult element to define is the one that makes the epic finale truly epic. How can we create an experience that will inspire awe? What might stir a student to continue thinking and talking about the course for months and years to come? A creative ending helps. A standard final exam certainly does not.

Individually, each of those ingredients is an improvement on a standard final exam. Together, they create something inspiring. In his book Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College, Mark C. Carnes writes: "Students (and teachers) deserve an academic world that is as exciting as intercollegiate football, as enchanting as World of Warcraft, as subversive as illegal boozing, and as absurd as fraternity initiations. As faculty and administrators, we can help students glimpse the intellectual wonderland that attracted us to academia in the first place: the invigorating scholarly debates, the transformational power of new ideas, the exhilarating risk of looking at the world in a different way, and the thrill of challenging accepted beliefs and practices."

The unspoken truth of education is that we don’t want students just to learn the material; we want them to want to learn the material. The final exam closes the book on a semester of learning. An epic finale primes the students to discuss the topic for weeks (or years) to come and to leave the classroom amid a bit more awesomeness than when they arrived.

Anthony Crider is an associate professor of physics at Elon University.