Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Is The Purpose of a Final Examination?

Why do you give a final exam to your classes? What do you hope to accomplish? I have talked with lots of professors over the years and their strategies for giving final examinations seem to vary significantly from one to the next:
--It is a comprehensive examination on the material from the entire semester with a major grade component.
--It is a one-hour test on just the material since the last hourly exam with no added weight in comparison to other tests.
--It is basically ignored; it is the work for the entire semester that is more important than what a person can do on one day at the end of the semester.
--It is a little harder than a one-hour test but students can only improve their grades and cannot hurt them.

I do know that as I walk through our building during final exams that most students seem to leave well before the three-hour time limit is reached. I am not sure that many final exams are still three hours in length.

I have always been interested in the final exams that are given by some law school professors. The entire grade for the whole semester is based on what the student can do on the final exam questions. Nothing else counts. The rationale is that, if you are going to be a lawyer, you need to be at your very best every day that you walk into court no matter what is thrown at you. There can be no down days.

However, I am teaching 19-20 year old sophomores and juniors in college and not 25-30 year old law students. I am afraid that I would have students facing nervous breakdowns if I put the whole grade on the final exam.

So, what are my goals for the final exam? Psychologically, what am I trying to accomplish?
---I want students to stay emotionally involved with my class all the way through the last day. I am not interested in them quitting early. Thus, the final exam has to count enough to make it worth their time to keep working. In my 201 class, the final exam is 35 percent of the overall grade. I have found that this is enough to keep them emotionally involved.
---I want to give students who do poorly on the first (and, even, second) test of the semester a chance to improve their grades. If a student makes a C or a D (or an F) on the first test, it can be very disheartening. It is easy to give up. I do everything I can to keep them from giving up. I like to be able to say “if you can show me that you can learn this material, you still have a lot of your grade left to earn including a comprehensive final examination.” Nothing pleases me more than for a student to make a low C or a D on the first test and then come roaring back to make an A for the course. That is hard to do unless the final examination has a pretty serious weight attached to it.
---Likewise, I don’t like students who do well on the first test to get complacent and think they have an A in the bag. “Good job on this first test but realize that there is a lot of semester left and I want you to keep up this level of work from beginning to end.”
---I want students to understand the material well enough that they can still answer questions from throughout the semester at the end. If we cover inventory in February, I think they should still be able to answer questions on that topic in early May. Since I want to stress understanding more than memorization, I don’t think that is too much to ask.

As a result, I do give a comprehensive final examination and I do grade it and that grade (for better or worse) counts 35 percent of the overall course grade. In my introductory course financial accounting course, I want the first student to leave after 2 hours and the last student to finish at 3 hours. I like it when about half stay virtually the whole time. For intermediate accounting, I want the first person to finish in three hours but everyone else is relatively close to being finished. The material in that course is so complicated that I don’t see how a final exam can take less than three hours.

So, I line up all the topics for the entire semester on a sheet of paper and pick one pretty much at random (nonmonetary exchanges, for example). I then ask myself – if one of my students is at a job in six-months and this topic is raised, what should I expect an A student to be able to remember after five minutes of review? In all honesty, I would love to say “what should I expect an A student to be able to remember immediately” but I don’t think that is realistic. People forget everything quickly (even financial accounting). 39 years of teaching has shown me that students never remember quite as much as you might hope.

Based on the answer to that question, I write a problem to see if they still hold that level of knowledge now. For example, a company buys a truck on January 1, Year One for $80,000 with a $6,000 residual value. It has an estimated life of 10 years and the company is using double-declining balance depreciation without the half-year convention. On April 1, Year Three, when this truck is worth $53,200, it is traded for another truck which is worth $53,600. What gain or loss (if any) does the company record on the exchange?

The rule is straight-forward here. Not an easy question but not an impossibly hard question.
If students truly understand GAAP in this area, even after six months, with five-minutes of solid review, they should be able to answer this question.
Thus, I would use it as an appropriate final examination question.

Setting up the final exam in this way keeps the students (I hope) thinking about financial accounting all the way until the end of the semester. And, it gives them one last chance to make up for any poor grades they have earned during the semester.

What’s your philosophy? Why do you give a final exam?

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