March 18th, 2015

Using Cumulative Exams to Help Students Revisit, Review, and Retain Course Content


The evidence that students retain content longer and can apply it better when exams and finals are cumulative is compelling. When I pointed to the evidence in a recent workshop, a faculty member responded, “But I can’t use cumulative exams. My students would revolt.” Students don’t like cumulative exams for the very reason we should be using them: they force regular, repeated encounters with the content. And it’s those multiple interactions with the material that move learning from memorization to understanding.

Another reason students object is that they don’t know how to study for long-term retention, but there are things we can do to help. With regular, short review activities in class or online we can encourage them to regularly reconnect with content covered previously. Here are some examples.

Use previous or potential test questions.

  • Display a question at the beginning of the session. “Here’s a test question I’ve asked previously about cognitive dissonance. How would you answer it?” Then give them time to talk with each other. Have them look in their notes. It’s a great way to get students to discover whether they have any helpful material in their notes that relates to the question. Furthermore, test questions keep students engaged and attentive until they’re answered, especially if several possible answers are proposed and discussed.
  • As a wrap-up exercise, have students create a possible test question. “This material on self-efficacy is fair game for the exam. What might a test question about it ask? How about jotting down some ideas.” Then ask several students to propose possible questions and identify those that are good. With a bit of editorial polish, create a question from one of their suggestions use it at the beginning or end of a session the following week. And, if one those student suggested questions ends up on the test, that pretty much guarantees that students will take this activity seriously.
  • Let students propose potential test questions. Encourage students to submit possible test questions. Those that are good get posted (without the answer) and the author gets a bonus point. Maybe one or two of those show up on the exam. Getting students involved in creating test questions makes them think about questions, not just answers and this student-generated test bank can be used for review across the course.

Regularly, in every class or whenever you’re online with a class, make a habit of asking questions about previous material. A few guidelines to this approach:

  • Resolutely refuse to answer the questions yourself. That’s exactly what students want you to do.
  • Ignore their looks of confusion and claims that they don’t have a clue.
  • Give them a hint. “We talked about mindset when we were talking about motivation. Check your notes for October 20. You might find the answer there.”
  • Be patient. It takes time to retrieve what you’ve just learned and barely understand.
  • Still no response? Tell them, that’s the question you’ll start with next session and if they don’t have an answer then, that’s a potential exam question for sure.

Have students do short reviews of previous material. There are lots of good times to do this—at the beginning of class, in the middle when they might need a break, or as a way to end the session.

  • On April 2 say, “Let’s all look at our notes from March 3. You’ve got two minutes to underline three things in your notes that you’re going to need to review for the exam.” Let them share underlines with someone nearby and then facilitate a short class discussion. This confronts students who don’t have notes for the day with the fact they may need some.
  • Late in November say, “Take three minutes to review your notes from November 1. Do you have anything in those notes that doesn’t make sense to you now?” Encourage other students to respond to what others have identified. “Help Shandra out. What do you the rest of you have in your notes about this?” Conclude by encouraging them to write more in their notes if they need to.
  • Or try this, “Your friend Leo wasn’t in class last Tuesday. He texts, asking what happened in class. Text Leo a short answer and don’t tell him ‘nothing’.”

If students are regularly encountering previous content in the course, that makes studying for cumulative exams easier. It also highlights relationships and coherence between content chunks.

Now it’s your turn. What techniques do you use to help students revisit and review content on a regular basis? Please share in the comment box.

  • Dale Kenison

    Finally! an educator who states what we have all known to be true for a long time, and a subject with which I often disagree with fellow faculty member (some of whom make their finals optional, if you can believe it!) – Life is cumulative and so should be the acquisition of concepts and knowledge in our courses. In the sciences, we are usually building upon cumulative experiences in previous courses and the course itself. Of course tests should be cumulative and the final should be comprehensive!! – thanks again

    • balesleftfoot

      Yes. I encounter colleagues who don't require students to take a final exam "if they have earned enough points in the course for an A." This policy reveals that (1) The final exam does not carry enough weight to be worthy of the name and (2) the faculty concerned have low levels of assessment literacy.

  • matthew Feldman

    "The evidence that students retain content longer and can apply it better when exams and finals are cumulative is compelling." Can you list a few sources?

  • Elizabeth Kelly

    Cumulative exams work well in nursing because nurses bring a variety of knowledge sources together ( heart rate, prescription drugs, etc) before working with a client. In the nursing school classroom patient case studies work well as an example of this type of testing. Also, nursing licensure exams are also based on cumulative exam styles.

    • Deborah Janeczko

      I agree with you. In my experience of teaching nursing, the NCLEX is totally based on accumulative learning. There are a plethora of evidence, including the amount of money spent on review/prep classes for the licensing exam.

  • Cecile Adkins

    Cumulate exams work well in nutrition because many of our courses (esp intro ones) are content-heavy and we do not get into the real nitty gritty of application. When teaching intro level courses especially I have been using quizzes and then cumulate mid term and final exams. The mid term and final exam questions are generated from the quizzes, plus any additional material that was covered. The questions do not always appear exactly the same – by switching up questions (going from a multiple choice to a short answer) students must be able to engage with the material and use it in different situations.

    • Deborah Janeczko

      I am guessing these accumulative exams give you an idea of which students will be successful on licensure exams and who might need a more intensive remediation prior to taking the exam.

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  • David

    Great article. Each week I begin class with a quick look at a current event item, take a few minutes at the beginning of class and ask for comment/relevancy based on what has been covered to date. I provide a link to the article after class so they can review the entire article. I remind them if they question the content or need help putting the article in context (IE geographic location, history), this is the perfect time to do a bit of research.

  • Phil Beauchamp

    I have taught organic chemistry for 35 years and have the same students for 3 quarters (one year). Early on I decided what core ideas I wanted the students to retain after the course was over and decided to introduce those as early as possible in the course and continue testing those ideas until the last final in the 3rd quarter. For example, we cover nomenclature early in the course and I present the entire topic then. From the first midterm in first quarter until the last final exam a very comprehensive nomenclature question will be on every exam. Students who learn it early are rewarded and those who don't know they will keep seeing it until they learn it. Arrow pushing in acid/base tautomer problems is introduced for the first exam and continued until the last final. It is a simple 3 step process (proton transfer, resonance, proton transfer = 4 variations) that they can practice over and over. However, I can generate a simple molecule that has 1000 variations of those 3 steps, so memorization is impossible. Arrow pushing is a fundamental logic skill used in every mechanism problem throughout the year. One of my main goals (which I communicate to the students) is to "defeat memorization". Another area I test over the last 2 quarters is synthesis. I have made a number of games, with fairly predictable strategies and rules that I use to combine key concepts that I want the students to practice repeatedly, as many times as I can get them to do so during the time that I have them (problems which have infinite variations). I have a "tautomer game", a C14 synthesis game", a "bio-organic game" and more. I quit trying to teach everything and settled on what I felt were the key concepts, presented in as many different ways as I could think of for as long as I challenge them with.

  • Yes, I would like some resources which prove cumulative exams are better.

    I give a cumulative final examination, while half of my colleagues skip it all together. I am thinking about cumulative tests also, especially helpful for struggling students (DWF rate will go lower), but I "anecdotally" believe that my distributed online quizzes after every class is keeping them engaged with the subject matter.

    • Deborah Janeczko

      Do you think from the student point of view, not having a cumulative final exam relaxing the learning environment or stimulates them? I once took a course where the final exam was optional if you met 2 rules: perfect attendance and above 95% cumulative GPA. It certainly was a motivator for me to attend all sessions and make above average grades.

      Personally, I believe in accumulative learning, however, as a student, I enjoyed the incentive to skip the final.

      • Laura S

        I like that idea of final exam being optional given those "2 rules". I think it would motivate students to attend regularly (though I might allow for one or two absences – don't want sick students coming to school) and put the most effort into their learning throughout the semester rather than trying to "cram" for a final exam. I might just give that a try one semester. In courses such as I teach that are not part of a cumulative program of study, exams tend to test lower level thinking skills (knowledge and comprehension). Perhaps a final project that has students analyzing, evaluating or otherwise applying all they have learned would be a better way to assess the results of the learning process.

  • Becky Giger

    I have never been a big supporter of Mid Terms or Finals but somewhere along the line I decided to break away from the typical final. Because I teach psychology, I want my students to take as much away from the class as possible. So I embrace authentic learning throughout course, using cummulative multiple choice tests for the weekly work that are open book tests
    Because we are required to give finals, I have decided to break with what I knew as finals and go to something that continues to build on what students have learned throughout the course.. There are two parts to my final, one an essay test with questions from each chapter that they can use their textbook on. The second part of the final is to have my students to choose ten of the nineteen chapters and tell me what they found that they had never thought about before. There are no right or wrong answers to to the second oart of the test, just correct spelling, sentence structure, and paragraphs.

    • Kevin H Woolley

      Becky – I really liked this article because if applied to a common student behavior that exists just about every time a student of mine does poorly on an exam. I've learned through sad experience that any pedagogical explanation to the student doesn't help. Neither does a discussion about effective study skills, time management, or how to succeed in my course. They basically beg for a way out of the problem they have gotten themselves into (….can you give us an extra credit assignment pleeeeeeze??) So, alternative methods that achieve the same or better results is what I take you are doing.

      Do you think that your students are getting it? Or are they just getting exposure with some comprehension and retainment?
      I also am curious why I am seeing more students attempting to "negotiate" with professors in recent years…

  • Katherine Robertson

    Great article – thank you. I would also like to encourage faculty to not worry about their "students revolting", a concern that I too have encountered frequently when talking to colleagues. I do however, encourage faculty to explicitly explain to students why they are asking them to do the things that they don't like to do, and how it will help them to learn. Students want to do well and respond well to these types of conversations. I get far fewer revolts, and better teaching evaluations when I do this. AND we owe it to our students to help them understand why we do these things and how they can become better learners.

    • Kevin H Woolley

      Some students care about their education, are dedicated and responsible learners, and have the ability to thrive in college. But… there are far more students who do more work after the exam, when their grade is in jeopardy, than before the exam. So, I agree that students typically want a good grade but they also want the path of least resistance regardless of whether they understand why the teacher does what she does (pedagogically speaking) or not. Kudos to you for taking the extra time to help your students. They are lucky and perhaps will do better in their next class with a different teacher.

  • This is an excellent read. This sparks, in my mind, the need for more dialog in higher education regarding effective formative and summative assessment as a component to any given instructional strategy. This topic is no longer just a discussion in the K-12 arena. I'm seeing good examples of formative and summative assessment strategies in this article. As a current instructional designer in higher education, I have recently observed the need for universities/colleges to embed formative/summative assessment into training/PD focusing on andragogy (pedagogy for adult learners) and effective instructional practice. In my discipline, instructional technology and design, I use a more project-based learning (PBL) approach as this assessment type is more authentic than traditional forms (i.e. tests and quizzes). I'll use small cumulative quizzes on occasion to hold students accountable for text readings, but the learning outcomes are more suited for a hands-on approach.

  • Elizabeth

    In an attempt to review my lecture I now give a non-graded quiz after a chapter is covered. I am finding that this mini review of the chapter helps to clarify some issues in the chapter that they thought they knew but did not. I am hoping to see better results on the next exam.
    I used to give students the option of not taking one exam or dropping the lowest exam grade but they had to take the 4th (last exam). What I found is that if they took the first 3 and if they were happy with their grades they would come and take the 4th exam but did not study so that was the lowest grade and was dropped. It seemed like a good idea until I realized that they were tuned out for the last few important chapters.

    In addition, I am now requiring all 4 exams and an optional cumulative exam if they miss one of the 4. But after reading this article I might make the cumulative final a requirement.

  • Enrique Arce

    great article

  • Deborah Janeczko

    Over my 20+ years in the field of career education I find we are providing a disservice to our students if we do not provide accumulative testing. I don't think this is confined to an individual course either. I teach in a career program with core courses that build on each other. It is mandatory to review material previously learned as new concepts are added. Not only do I add a few questions on my weekly, mid-term, and final exams, my students expect it. This is one way I assist them in preparing for certification and/or licensing exams mandatory for placement in the career field. Additionally, I have one group project that carries throughout the program, with sections being completed during each of the core courses. This improves interaction between students, very important when you realize I am teaching a hybrid program that is offered 80% online.

    One area I did not see addressed in your article is school/college/university protocols. I work at a college that will soon be upgrading to a university. Cumulative finals are mandatory, although in my years with the school no one has verified this to my knowledge. I am surprised by the number of responder here that have the latitude to determine if they will or will not give a mandatory final exam. Of course "final exam" has not be defined so it could simply be the last exam given, not necessarily cumulative.

    Finally, with the increase in non-traditional methods of education, we must be diligent in developing curricula strong in paralleling that provided in the traditional classroom. Utilizing a product to ensure the actual student is taking any exam is important. Cheating is a huge issue in online education and therefore whether or not there is an accumulative final could be debatable if it is not proctored appropriately.

    Let us not forget a quote I use often from Faculty Focus: "A meaningful education is measured not by the facts a student accumulates, but by what he or she is able to do with those facts." Our job: provide the best learning environment to assist our students with success throughout their journey.

  • Ed Nelson

    I have always believed in cumulative exams, especially finals. But more and more of the faculty, especially the ones teaching the freshman classes, are not giving finals at all. Just giving two or three tests during the semester. In some cases the tests are all take home or open book (especially in all the on-line classes we now have). When the students get to my class, many of them have retained nothing from their freshman classes and I have to go back and re-teach what they should already know.

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  • Stan Skrabut

    While not a fan of high stakes testing, I do appreciate cumulative exams and their power for learning content. I have only had the experience of being administrated cumulative exams at one place across my academic career and that was at the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School. We were given an exam every other day for every subject across a ten month period. Although a pain at the time, I appreciate what I learned.

  • mike hill

    I use a cumulative 'project' that requires a comprehensive response at a higher level of learning. The traditional final 'exam' creates so much anxiety, especially if the format is objective ( e.g. multiple choice). The last evaluation I want the learners to have in my course is an authentic learning experience.

  • norakrieger

    I like the ideas in this article. Another way to make sure students review previously "covered" or learned content is to make sure there are activities/assignments/projects that cannot be completed without going back to review what was learned earlier in the semester and use it. Tests alone are not enough. I also have projects that depend on accumulated learning across the entire semester.

    I really like the ideas about how to start class with a review of what was learned as well as ending the class with something similar.

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  • Pharmer Kaon

    I love the idea of having the students write a short review of the previous material. This a great way to approach "mastery" especially on those classes that build on each other to to a final goal, ceritification of board exam. I have a fresh outlook and new skills to develop thanks to this article. Well done and I believe in cumulative finals…I believe in cumlulative finals…. I believe in cumulative finals… I believe in cumulative finals and I clapping my hands.