Preparing for Comprehensive Finals

There are a couple of reasons why students don’t like comprehensive finals. First, they’re more work. Rather than four weeks’ worth of material to know and understand, there’s a semester or term’s worth of content to deal with. However, the research highlighted in an article in this issue of the newsletter and more like it strongly supports that continued interaction with the content increases the chances that it will be remembered and can be used subsequently. Students also don’t like comprehensive exams because most of them don’t use good cross-course study strategies. They wait until finals week and then they start reviewing. Here are some ways teachers can help students develop and use study strategies that make preparing for and doing well on comprehensive finals easier.

In comments the teacher explains the educational rationale behind cumulative finals. They are not being used because the teacher wants to make the course hard. They are being given because research has shown that students remember course content longer and are better able to apply what they have learned. Moreover, the teacher is committed to helping students prepare for those exams throughout the course. And the teacher is open to student suggestions: what could be done in class, outside of class, or online that would help students effectively prepare for the cumulative final?

In class when new content relies on or relates to previous material, pause and let students recall or find that previous content. Where is it in their notes? In the text? How does knowing this previous material making understanding the new content easier? Obviously, this takes time and teachers may not be able to be this deliberate every time, but they can always tell students that there is a connection and they should be looking for it.

At the beginning of class quickly put students in small groups. Give them five (maybe more, maybe fewer) questions drawn from previous content. Let them find the answers. The first group to get all five answered correctly gets bonus points, treats, stars, or pats on the back. They get more of whatever’s being given if they can also correctly say or list where the answer can be found.

At the end of class during those five minutes of summary time devoted to highlighting the day’s content, take five more minutes, or if a summary really isn’t needed, take the time to have students review notes taken on a previous day. “Everyone take a couple of minutes and look at your notes for October 23. What are the key ideas you have in your notes?” “What do you have about X in your notes?”

Instead of a quiz, students prepare a potential exam question on material covered during the last two weeks. Their questions are submitted before class, and if the teacher finds five potential exam questions, those are posted on the course website. Students who come to class get quiz credit (without having to take a quiz), and each student who authored one of the five questions posted gets a bonus point.

There are lots of variations here. Students can be given the option of submitting potential exam questions anytime during the course. If any of those questions ends up on the final, the student author should get the question correct and maybe get a bonus point.

There is merit in having students write potential exam questions. It’s a good review strategy, and it gets them thinking about questions, not just trying to memorize answers. They don’t write good test questions automatically, which means some resources might need to be made available online, and samples of good questions compared with not so good questions might need to be discussed in class.

On quizzes and exams, include a designated number of items that ask about content from previous units. To reinforce the importance of these questions, perhaps make them worth an extra point or offer additional bonus points for getting them all correct.

In study groups, which the teacher can encourage students to form, the group could be given a chunk of content and tasked with preparing a study guide (including study questions) on the material. These study guides could be distributed to other students in the class. This could be a course assignment or an extra-credit option.


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