Teaching Tips

Preparing Your Students for Final Exams

“Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.”

By Darrell G. Fontane

Final Exams are stressful to make, to give, to take, and to grade—not to mention, a critical element in the evaluation of students. Typically comprehensive, they carry more weight than mid-terms and other tests given throughout they semester, and provide that “final” opportunity for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

But, as pointed out in Final Exam, an article in UC-Berkeley’s New Faculty Teaching Newsletter, students often complain that “final exams do not always test the kinds of knowledge…asked for in homework or quizzes or presented in lectures” (Tollefson, 2007). Whether this complaint is valid or not, it is important that we devote our best effort to creating good final exams.

Below, I present my own observations regarding the nine helpful suggestions Tomlinson includes in his article:

“Spend some time now reviewing what you’ve covered this semester and—very important—why you’ve covered it. Then rank the material into three categories: ‘vital,’ ‘nice to know,’ ‘can get by without.'”

Begin by writing questions about the vital category first and then move to the other categories as needed. As the article points out, “most exams will not ever get past the ‘vital’ category.” As also suggested, look at the learning objectives stated in the syllabus: Questions should be designed to determine if the students have achieved the stated learning objectives. This assumes objectives stated in a manner clear enough to be measured. For example, if an objective was that students be able to apply a certain equation, then writing questions to test the application is pretty straightforward. On the other hand, if an objective was that students gain an appreciation for what engineers do, then good luck writing a question to measure that!

“Decide how to best test the ‘vital’ material.”

Should retained knowledge be demonstrated by writing desired equations or by applying equations that solve a given problem? A link in the article to Bloom’s Taxonomy goes into much more detail on the various ways to test material. It’s worth checking out.

“If you are testing large numbers of students, don’t think that you are only able to test facts or recall.”

Again, the article contains a link with more details on this topic. Engineering students may need to be tested on their ability to apply equations and calculate answers, but that does not restrict you to asking single-answer questions. You can be just as creative developing multiple-choice questions that test the student’s ability to apply equations or to determine the proper equations to apply to a given situation.

“As you develop questions, you might consider soliciting exam questions from your students. The two major benefits of this are that it tells you what they think is important/interesting and it gets them to think about the course as a whole.”

There have been a number of times when I am conducting a review for the final and students ask me questions of which I wish I had thought.

“When you’re done with a draft of the exam, take the exam and time yourself. If you can, ask someone else to take it, too.”

Try not to underestimate the time it will take your students to work the exam. You want to catch—before the fact—any inadvertent problems your exam may have: If you don’t, your students—after the fact—most certainly will.

“Consider the layout of the exam. For instance, often with essay questions, we blend what we intend to be helpful background with the question itself, and students have to hunt for the question.”

Word problems are often used in the sciences to measure a student’s ability to understand a situation, determine a problem, and create a solution. We need to be careful that our “word problems” are written as simply and clearly as possible.

“Beware of some dangerous words: ‘discuss’, ‘analyze’, and ‘explain’.”

If you have ever used any of these terms then you know that students can interpret these in many ways and you can get a very wide range of answers. Be as specific as you can about what you expect the student’s answer to contain.

“Closer to the final exam time, discuss the exam with your students, letting them know the kinds of questions you’ll be asking and why.”

I imagine that we all tell our students what an exam will cover and the kinds of questions we will ask. However, I wonder how many of us tell our students why that material is being tested or why we are using certain types of questions.

“After the exams have been graded, do a quick analysis of the questions and responses.”

The time to determine whether there were any problems with the final exam is when it is still fresh in your mind. Make notes regarding the problems you encountered and the changes you think might remove them and save those with a copy of the exam in which the problems were discovered. This will help in the creation of final exams in the future.

I strongly encourage everyone wanting to learn more about creating final exams to read UC-Berkeley’s online newsletter article titled Final Exams and to follow the embedded links therein to even further information.


Tollefson, S. (2007). Final exams. New Faculty Teaching Newsletter #25. Retrieved September 22, 2021 from http://teaching.berkeley.edu/final-exams

student preparing for Calculus test