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Help Make Final Exams More Meaningful


Dear Student:

I try to make the final exam a learning experience for you as well as a means of assessing your knowledge. What ideas can you share to help me craft a more meaningful “final” learning experience? Feel free to share an example from the past—one of the most effective final exams you’ve ever completed.

Dear Professor:

I rarely look forward to taking a final exam, but this semester I’m excited for one.  My structural geology final is more or less to describe what happened in Slate Canyon by going out and observing, measuring, etc.  I anticipate a very challenging but rewarding and fun experience.  I think I’m looking forward to this final because it satisfies at least one of the reasons I became a geology major in the first place:  I love hiking and going outside.  It is also a hands-on, practical application of everything we have learned this semester and will show if we have learned how to think, not just complete assignments.  I realize that it’s not practical for every class to have a final like this, but as a professor, you could consider the reasons your students are taking your class and maybe cater to their interests and make it mean something to them going forward.


Dear Professor:

Ironically, my most memorable testing experiences have not taken place in the testing center.  They have consisted of projects or reports in which we had to use the knowledge we had gained throughout the course to complete a final project.  For example, in a class I took about the writing of Anton Chekov, the professor told us on the first day that for our final we would submit a project or report based on an element of Chekov’s writing that we had been tracking throughout the semester.  I chose to track the symbolism of the color green in Chekov’s stories. Not only did this project motivate me to pay careful attention to all of our readings throughout the semester, but also, as I wrote the final report, all of our class discussions and assignments came together and formed a whole. Because I had used my knowledge to create something, I felt satisfied that I had actually learned from the material presented in this class. It’s easy to memorize facts for a test, and it’s almost as easy to forget these facts in the semesters afterwards.  Assignments where students are asked to create something based off of their knowledge are often “open book” tests; however I feel I remember the information better in those cases than when I am required simply to memorize facts.


Dear Professor:

Finals are the most dreaded time of the semester for most students. I think the cause for this dread is comprehensive finals. Not that comprehensive is bad, but most students don’t want anything to do with a final that they have to spend forever studying for.

Some of the most effective finals for me have been the ones that let me actually write and answer real questions instead of the usual true/false and multiple choice questions that come with the Scantrons. I am currently enrolled in a Japanese class that has both multiple choice and short answer on the test. The short answer provokes application of the materials we’ve read, but most multiple choice questions seem to make me memorize the necessary information or guess.

Short answer along with the multiple choice is best for a more “effective” testing experience.


Engaging Students


[Note to Readers: Unlike previous “Dear Professor/Dear Student” posts in which we receive a question from one (e.g., student) and solicit responses from the other (e.g., faculty), this edition reflects a question from both parties. Accordingly, we invite both students and faculty to respond to this posting.]

Dear Professor:

I have some classes where it seems the professors rely just on PowerPoint slides or read their notes to teach the lesson. At times I wonder why I have to come and listen to a lecture at all when I could just go through the slides on my own. Is it challenging to find new ways to engage students? If so, what are some of the barriers?


Dear Student:

Being a professor at a university means I have many responsibilities and obligations to fulfill. Because of all these pressures, I often find it difficult to develop new lesson plans and methods in my large lecture courses. I am concerned that sometimes my lectures are not helping my students as well as they could. What can I do to better engage you and help you learn in these kinds of settings?


My best large-lecture experiences were when the professor took comments from students (in the JS Auditorium class, we used microphones and the TAs ran them around). I benefited a lot from the comments made by my peers and the opportunity I had to ask questions or make comments every so often. I don’t know what subject area you’re talking about, but in my physics and chemistry classes I appreciated teacher demonstrations and visual aids–things the teacher could explain well to our large group, and which I couldn’t just read off of a PowerPoint on my own time.


Come up with simple activities where we have to apply what we learn in order to learn it. In other words, instead of just studying accounting theory, make us go to companies out there and have us apply our knowledge to meet some legitimate need for a company.

~ Josh

No offense, but the process of learning has changed dramatically since most professors went through school. What worked for our professors won’t necessarily work for us. We learn more through technology, visual reinforcement, lots of examples, and easier access to repeat the lecture.



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