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Examining the Benefits of Cumulative Tests and Finals

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NOVEMBER 13TH, 2015

Examining the Benefits of Cumulative Tests


and Finals
By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD
Add Comment ith the academic year nearly over and final exams upon us, its 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

http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/educational-assessment/examining-the-benefits-of-cumulative-tests-and-finals/[8/8/2016 12:09:40 PM]

Examining the Benefits of Cumulative Tests and Finals

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 dont 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 dont like. That should start with a
discussion of the rationale behind the teachers decision to use cumulative exams, and its 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 materialthings such as regular, ongoing review (not just night-before-exam
cramming) and study groups or even a single study buddy. Perhaps theres 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 unitsasking 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

Cumulative finals are


better than unit tests,
but cumulative exams
across the course are
the best option if the
goal is long-term
retention.

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?
http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/educational-assessment/examining-the-benefits-of-cumulative-tests-and-finals/[8/8/2016 12:09:40 PM]

Examining the Benefits of Cumulative Tests and Finals

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.
Heres 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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Posted in Educational Assessment


Tagged with cumulative finals, exams, testing strategies

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Examining the Benefits of Cumulative Tests and Finals

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