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Optional Final Exams as an Assessment Tool in Engineering Curricula

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

ERM Potpourri

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1014.1 - 25.1014.19



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Paper Authors


Anthony Gregerson University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Anthony Gregerson is a Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin, where he recently won the 2012 Exceptional Service Award for teaching assistants. He is a member of the UW's Teaching Academy and the Delta Program in Research, Teaching, and Learning. He has eight years' experience teaching as a tutor, Teaching Assistant, and instructor and occasionally writes about testing and assessment for When not teaching, he designs real-time processing systems for CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

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Sean Franey University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Sean Franey is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is currently working in the PHARM research group under Prof. Mikko Lipasti, joining in Sept. 2010. His research interests include improving the performance and efficiency of data movement in multi-node systems, specifically in the GPGPU realm. His path to UW, Madison, lead through four years on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in Norfolk, Va., receipt of a B.S. degree from Old Dominion University in computer engineering, and a M.S. degree in electrical engineering from UW, Madison. When not slogging through lines of simulator code, he enjoys brewing award-winning beer.

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Optional Final Exams as an Assessment Tool in Engineering CurriculaA common complaint from engineering students is that too many of their courses are“backloaded” – that is, that course project deadlines coupled with end-of-semester exams resultin disproportionately heavy workloads in the final weeks of the semester – a problem that iscompounded for students taking multiple engineering courses concurrently. This phenomenonshould be of concern to educators in engineering because student stress and fatigue may reducethe reliability of our testing instruments during this critical assessment period and because suchexperiences may lead otherwise talented students to leave engineering for other disciplines; inSeymour and Hewitt’s 1997 book on student defections from science-based majors, over onethird cited of students who left these majors cited course “overload” as a primary factor in theirdecision. As an attempt to reduce backloading, we have experimented with the use of optionalcomprehensive final exams in place of mandatory ones. Under this system, we allow students thechoice of whether to take the final exam, including it in the grade for only the students who optto take it. The concept of optional final exams follows from a pair of arguments: (1) Studentswho demonstrate mastery of the course content on a mid-semester exam will be able to reacquireit as needed, so it is unnecessary to retest them at the end of the semester, and (2) students whoperformed poorly on early assessments but believe they have improved their mastery of thematerial since then should be allowed a chance to demonstrate this improvement. To evaluate theimpact of optional final exams, we deployed them in two different courses, a senior engineeringcourse focused on high-level application and design and a freshman/sophomore engineeringcourse focused on foundational knowledge and skills. We compared the results of implementingan optional exam in the two different courses, between different versions of the optional exam inthe same course in consecutive semesters, and between mandatory and optional exams in thesame course. From this data we address the following research questions: • What fraction of students take advantage of optional final exams? • How successful are students at identifying whether they should take an optional final? Are low-performing students taking advantage of the exam? Are high-performing students taking it unnecessarily? How often do students improve their grades by taking the optional final? • What is the impact of giving students some control over the ratio that the final exam contributes to their final grade in point-driven assessment systems? Does it yield significant differences in their overall grades? • How do score distributions on optional exams compare to those of mandatory exams? • Are students satisfied, dissatisfied, or indifferent about optional exam schemes?In addition to our evaluation of the experimental evidence, we provide a qualitative discussion ofthe issues we encountered when using an optional final exam in practice and giverecommendations on how to mitigate potential pitfalls.

Gregerson, A., & Franey, S. (2012, June), Optional Final Exams as an Assessment Tool in Engineering Curricula Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21771

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