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Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 68: Designing and Administering Final Exams

Welcome to the sixty-eighth issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education. This November, our topic is "Designing and Administering Final Exams."

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

Designing Final Exams

As described by the Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning, “the worst final exams can seem unfocused, determined to test everything, or random things. The best final exams are learning moments.”

What should a final exam measure? Walvoord and Anderson believe that they should measure what instructors “value most.” To do this, here are some points to think about when designing a final exam. Exam questions should:

  • Have a context
  • Be creative
  • Pose complex problems
  • Require students to “integrate course skills and knowledge”
  • Measure both disciplinary skills and content knowledge
  • Be cumulative
  • Require students to “make connections among various concepts or ways of thinking”
  • Include a self-assessment component – require students to evaluate their own intellectual growth over the course of the semester.
  • Have grading criteria based on professional standards – “Reward what your discipline rewards" (McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning)


When beginning to design your final exams, consider the following steps:

  • Review what you’ve covered in the semester and why you’ve covered it. Rank the material into three categories – 'vital,’ ‘nice to know,’ and ‘can get by without.’  Determine how you will test the ‘vital’ material.
  • Consider asking students to develop exam questions – this will engage them with the material, find out what they think were the most important or relevant course concepts, and encourage them to think about the course as a whole.
  • When you’ve composed a draft of your exam, take it yourself and time how long it takes you to complete. If possible, have another person take the exam for a test drive to see if the instructions are clear and the questions unambiguous.
  • Revise the draft with the exam’s layout in mind – can things be made more clear or concise? For example, “with essay questions, we blend what we intend to be helpful background with the question itself, and students have to hunt for the question. Instead: put the background in one paragraph, and label it as such. Then put the question on a separate line.” Make sure the value assigned to each part of the exam is clearly and prominently stated.
  • When it’s close to exam time, review the exam format with students. Provide pointers for studying and make your expectations clear. If possible, provide students with practice exercises or examples of excellent answers.
  • After the exam has been graded, take a look at the results – were there some questions that were more problematic for students than others? Is there evidence that phrasing or format, rather than the content, confused students? Think about ways the exam could be changed and make notes of these ideas for the next semester (Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning)


For more information on different assessment methods, visit our page of resources on Assessment and Evaluation.

Administering Final Exams

When administering final exams, especially multiple choice tests in large lecture halls or in rooms with fixed or tiered seating, academic integrity is always a concern. To help faculty prevent cheating on final exams, the LTO has developed a document on best practices in administering exams [pdf].

When designing final exams, the following suggestions can help you prevent cheating:

  • Where possible, use test formats other than multiple-choice questions. Short-answer, essay, or problem-solving questions are harder to copy than Scantron bubbles (UC Davis).
  • Require students to submit not just the answer but all the work that led to the answer (UC Davis).
  • Change test questions frequently and “keep track of how many copies of a test are made, how many are handed out… and how many are handed back in so you know if one is stolen” (McMaster).
  • Include a blank sheet of paper with the test booklet and instruct students to cover their responses. Instruct students in the use of this blank sheet before the exam and in the test instructions, and encourage them to use it while walking around the room (Symbaluk, 2014).
  • Use multiple versions of exams. For classes of 40 students or less, use at least two versions of an exam. For classes of 60 to 80 students, use at least three versions. For classes with 80 students or more, use at least four versions (Symbaluk, 2014). When designing multiple versions of exams you have a couple of options:
    • “Just move the first two pages to the end of the exam or use a similar strategy to ensure the response columns will not appear identical for both versions for anyone scanning their classmates’ exams for answers” (Symbaluk, 2014).
    • Scramble the order of questions or answers, or change key variables, values, or terms used in the questions (Rutgers). Software like Respondus, which is available through Ryerson’s CCS department, can automate this process (McGill).
    • Number answer sheets and test booklets, so that number on each booklet corresponds to the number on the answer sheet (CITL).
    •  Use different coloured cover sheets with randomly assigned colors so you can see from afar whether adjacent students are working on the same test. Photocopying the entire exams on different coloured paper also makes it impossible for students to switch the version of the test they are writing (Rutgers; McMaster). The colour coding also makes it easier to match up the version with the correct answer key when marking (McGill).


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"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Instructional Design and Research Strategist at the Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or best practices that you would like to see appear in this newsletter? Please send all submissions to We look forward to including your contributions in our next issue!

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