Designing a Final Exam Worth Grading

What should a final exam test or measure? In “Making Assignments Worth Grading,” Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson suggest that instructors design exams that “measure what you value most.” This might mean designing exams that ask your students to do the work of the discipline—for instance, to develop an argument from textual data, to analyze a phenomenon through a theoretical lens, or to solve an open-ended problem. Of course, for a student to do this work, she has to know the course material. The following suggestions are intended to help you think about designing a final exam that tests what you value.

  • Provide a context for your exam questions. Be creative; develop questions that test your students’ knowledge and skills in particular situations or for particular audiences.
  • Pose complex problems that require students to integrate course skills and knowledge.
  • Allow sufficient time for students to complete a section of an exam that measures disciplinary skills in addition to other sections that test content knowledge.
  • Have students write, and answer, their own final exam question, testing their ability to formulate and respond to good questions within the discipline.
  • Make the final exam a cumulative one, requiring students to make connections among various concepts or ways of thinking.
  • Develop a self-assessment exercise as part of the exam. Ask your students to evaluate how their intellectual development has been informed by the lectures they have attended or the readings they have done.
  • Establish grading criteria based on the professional standards in your discipline. Reward what your discipline rewards.


Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.

Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Walvoord, Barbara E. and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

For additional pedagogical resources, visit the Graduate Students and Faculty webpages.