November 13th, 2015

Examining the Benefits of Cumulative Tests and Finals

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arm load of books

With the academic year nearly over and final exams upon us, it’s a good time to consider how we assess student knowledge in our courses. Cumulative finals are still used in many courses, but a significant number of faculty have backed away from them because they are so unpopular with students, who strongly voice their preferences for exams that include only questions on content covered in that unit or module.

Although teachers should not ignore or discount student preferences across the board, there is the larger issue of which testing procedures best promote deep learning and lasting retention of course content. The evidence on the side of cumulative exams and finals is pretty much overwhelming, and those empirical results should not come as a surprise. An exam with questions on current and previous content encourages continued interaction with course material, and the more students deal with the content, the better the chances they will remember it. Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason they ought to be used: preparing for them requires more time and energy devoted to understanding and remembering course content.

Cumulative finals are better than unit tests, but cumulative exams across the course are the best option if the goal is long-term retention. Good and plentiful research documents that students taking cumulative exams during the course score significantly higher when given content exams after the course is over.

The challenge is getting students on board with an exam procedure they don’t like. That should start with a discussion of the rationale behind the teacher’s decision to use cumulative exams, and it’s a discussion that needs to occur early in the course. Part of what frightens students about cumulative tests is that studying for them seems overwhelming. The teacher can help here by exploring with them efficient ways to study sizable amounts of material—things such as regular, ongoing review (not just night-before-exam cramming) and study groups or even a single study buddy. Perhaps there’s an extra-credit assignment (or regular credit assignment) that involves creating study questions or study guides, with the best ones posted on the course website or otherwise made available to the rest of the class.

Teachers can also help by regularly referencing content from previous units—asking questions about it, asking students to summarize key concepts that are relevant to material being covered now, challenging students to find things in their notes. Using content from different units helps construct that larger understanding of how all the course material relates and builds a coherent knowledge structure.

The article by Skinner in this issue illustrates how incentives can encourage students to study hard and do well on cumulative finals. Other options might be used on cumulative tests with good performance on questions that cover previous content generating a bonus added to the exam score.

During the exam debrief, there might be a discussion of various strategies students are using to review previous material. Which ones are working; which ones are not? What new options might be tried for the next exam?

Students are never going to love exams. Most do understand that they are the way teachers discover what students know and justify the grades they earn. What more students need to understand is that certain kinds of exam experiences promote learning that lasts longer, which helps them in subsequent courses and after they graduate.

Here’s a sample of the kind of research that documents the value of cumulative testing: Khanna, M. M., Badura Brack, A. S., & Finken, L. L. (2013). Short- and long-term effects of cumulative finals on student learning. Teaching of Psychology, 40(3), 175-182.

Reprinted from Cumulative Tests and Finals The Teaching Professor, 28.5 (2014): 2. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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