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How do faculty prepare for finals?

One professor told us that a student ate his final exam. Yes, ate. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Final exams can be stressful for the students taking them, but what about for the faculty creating them? We asked a few Northeastern faculty members about their approach and whether any particular exams stood out in their memories. One professor told us that a student ate his final exam. Yes, ate.

Preparing for finals

Meg Heckman, assistant professor of journalism, College of Arts, Media and Design

Because she teaches workshop classes, Heckman doesn’t typically give traditional final exams.

“Students usually submit final projects instead,” Heckman said. “In the best cases, I’ve seen multiple drafts of these projects, coaching the students along the way on focus, reporting, narrative structure, and technical matters. The final version is like a victory lap, and I love seeing what students produce.”

Benjamin Hescott, teaching professor, College of Computer and Information Science

Hescott said he writes a new final exam every semester and hands out the previous semester’s exam to students as a practice and review tool.

“In preparing the exam, I determine the type and topic of the questions ahead of time and inform the students,” he said. “Since I don’t want to measure the student’s test-taking ability, but rather the material from my class, I tell them exactly the format and topic of each question.

“Beyond the topic and type, I never write the exam too early,” Hescott said. “I will often be thinking about the questions in my head, but don’t write them down until a day or two ahead. I can’t keep a secret. So, I only write the exam after the review sessions.

“I never try to make the final interesting,” he added. “I don’t want any ‘gotcha’ questions or questions designed to separate the A’s from the A-minuses. I want a final assessment of what students have taken away from the whole course.”

Lucas Landherr, assistant teaching professor of chemical engineering, College of Engineering

Like Hescott, Landherr writes new exams every semester that reflect the particular areas of emphasis in each of his courses.

“I work to find the right balance between ensuring it is fair and appropriately assesses the students’ understanding, while also making sure it is difficult enough that the students need to apply the concepts to determine the final answer,” he said. “If the students know the concepts, they should be fine.

“My trick to approaching the final exam is to take it myself after I’m particularly tired,” Landherr said. “However long it takes me, I multiply by four—if that’s longer than the amount of time the students have, then I need to make the exam shorter. This is the best approach I’ve found to making sure the exam ends up being fair for the students.

“In the lab course I’ve taught, students had to give a final presentation,” he said. “I changed the style of the presentation so the students had to present as if they were speaking to a town hall-style meeting, with the town’s citizens in the audience. I would then bring in upperclassmen to act as the citizens and challenge them to ask questions not from an engineering perspective but instead addressing their personal concerns—for instance, would the proposed water treatment system prevent them from going fishing, or would the system disrupt the tourism industry. The presenters learn a lot in terms of having to align their presentations appropriately for certain audiences, and you can also assess how well they think on their feet.”

And now, for the final act…

We also asked faculty if any recent exams stood out in their minds. They didn’t disappoint.

Hescott: “I once had a student get a bloody nose during the exam; luckily it was toward the end of the exam and he was fine. I placed his exam on the top of the pile when leaving. When I returned to my office a colleague saw the pile of the exams and that the top one was covered in blood and asked if everything was alright. My response? ‘It was a real blood bath.’”

Landherr: “In one of my courses, I have an optional final exam—students can take it as a means of reducing the impact of their previous exams in the course. Last year, after realizing the optional exam wasn’t going well, a student ate the exam so that I couldn’t grade it. I’ve modified my policy since that happened.”