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Category: Quizzes and Exams

Finals that cover all the material presented in the course are decidedly unpopular with students. They much prefer exams that include one chunk of content at a time. But there are good reasons to make finals comprehensive. Consider these results from a recent study of psychology students. The research team was interested in the short- and long-term effects of cumulative finals. To determine the short-term effects, they asked this straightforward research question: “Do students who have a cumulative final at the end of the semester score higher on a measure of class content knowledge than students who do not have a cumulative semester final?” (p. 176) To answer this question, they tested students' content knowledge in six different core psychology courses that included 13 sections of introductory psych and 25 sections of upper-division courses. The content exams used in the study were part of what the department uses as quantitative evidence of teaching effectiveness “to measure if students are retaining the most important material taught in our course by their instructors.” (p. 177) The content exams were not part of the final and not included in the student's course grade. They were administered at the end of the course. The finding: “[C]lasses taking cumulative finals performed reliably better than classes who had noncumulative finals.” (p. 177) The mean score on the content exam in the introductory psych sections with a cumulative final was 76.66 (SD 4.01) compared to a 63.26 mean score (SD 6.82) in the sections without a comprehensive final. In the upper-division sections with a cumulative final, the mean score was 82.60 (SD 4.54) compared to a 72.19 mean score (SD 10.55) in those sections without a cumulative final. As for the long-term effects, the researchers measured retention of course material up to three semesters after having taken the course. They had former students take online content exams for courses taken one, two, and three semesters previously. Given that these psychology majors had repeated exposure to course content, the effect of the cumulative exam was smaller, but it held for all three of the time periods. The researchers offer this general conclusion: “Regardless of type of course, students with cumulative finals did better on departmental content tests than students in courses with noncumulative exams. ...” (p. 180) “As a result of these findings, we believe using cumulative finals improves student learning, and we encourage instructors to utilize cumulative finals in their courses.” The recommendation is justified by another interesting finding: “[E]ven in our optimal study condition (immediate content exam administration in upper-division courses with cumulative finals) students only answered 82% of the content exam items correctly. In the worst condition (18 month time lag for introductory psychology courses with noncumulative finals), students retained just over half of the important information from introductory psychology.” (p. 180) Many instructors worry about using pedagogical methods unpopular with students. But good educational experiences aren't always about what students like. Most things are not learned well without hard work. This study did only involve psychology majors, but data were collected from multiple sections and analyzed appropriately. Moreover, this isn't the first or only study that supports the effectiveness of comprehensive finals when the issue is content retention. See another article in this issue that proposes ways of helping students better prepare for comprehensive finals. Reference: Khanna, M. M., Badura Brack, A. S., and Finken, L. L. (2013). Short- and long-term effects of cumulative finals on student learning. Teaching of Psychology, 40 (3), 175-182.