Guidance for Final Exams

During this semester of pedagogical adaptation and change, we are quickly approaching the task of final assessment of our students’ learning for the Spring 2020.  We are again asking you to adapt and respond in ways perhaps we have never considered.  While we must ensure that grades and credit awarded reflect specific outcomes, we urge you to carefully assess your strategies for measuring the learning that students have done.  

As in other areas, flexibility should guide us in this final assessment period.  Our students (like us) find themselves in circumstances far different from our campus settings. Their technology environments, as you are probably learning from them, are in some cases nonexistent – or dependent solely on cellular networks and mobile devices.  They may be competing with others in their households for bandwidth or time on a laptop or desktop.   In other words, our assumptions about how -- and how well -- they can perform on a timed test at a specific time might apply to only a small number of students.    

Therefore, please consider designing your “final” to accommodate students in these new situations.  Not only will this give students a better chance to succeed, it may also save you time and effort in having to make numerous exceptions or alternative arrangements, reduce the number of “incomplete” grades, and prevent other undesirable consequences.  

In some courses, it may be possible (and indeed preferable) to offer an alternative assessment instead of a traditional final exam. Colleagues in ITS, ITLAL and Online Teaching and Learning are available to assist you in this process.

I. Different options to do final assessment -- Alternatives to offering a final exam 

In some courses, it may be possible (and indeed preferable) to offer an alternative assessment instead of a traditional final exam. Remember that any final assessment should be aligned with the work students have done in the course, so you want to start by asking yourself what the focus of your course has been and what your course has prepared students to do on a final assessment. Below are some options that align with different kinds of course goals you might have. 

Please note that these are very basic explanations, and using these assessments will require some more thinking and planning on your part. We invite you to request a consultation with ITLAL staff if you would like to explore and develop one of these options (or another alternative final assessment) for your course.

If your course has focused on students learning to recall or comprehend basic concepts or definitions

you might consider these alternatives to a traditional final exam. 

  • Course concept summary: Give students a list of a few of the most important terms from the course and ask them to write short summaries in their own words and perhaps a brief description of a situation in which those concepts may be visible or relevant. Depending on what the concepts are, these summaries may range from one sentence to one paragraph in length. A more challenging approach would be to give students a list of concepts, ask them to identify and define the ones they believe are most important, and then explain their choices.
  • Describe key concepts in layperson’s terms: Give students a list of a few (maybe 3) of the most important terms or concepts from the course and tell them they have been asked to write a letter to their younger sister’s fifth-grade class and explain those terms to her classmates in terms they can understand. 
  • Meaningful paragraph: Give students a list of a few of the most important terms from the course and ask them to write a paragraph (or two or three) in which they use each of those terms in a way that demonstrates they understand both their meaning and their interconnectedness.
If your course has focused on students learning to analyze or apply concepts in real-world situations

you might consider these alternatives to a traditional final exam. 

  • Case analysis: Give students a brief written scenario (or have them watch a short video) and ask them to write a short paper in which they use terms or concepts from the course to analyze what is happening, diagnose a problem, propose a solution, or predict an outcome. 
  • Solution analysis: Give students a brief written scenario (or have them watch a short video) that presents a problem in the field and a possible solution to that problem. Have them write a short paper in which they use concepts from the course to identify and describe at least three major advantages and three major disadvantages to the proposed solution. You might ask them, also, to argue for or against this solution given this list of pros and cons.
If your course has focused on having students synthesize ideas or learn to think more like experts in your field

you might consider these alternatives to a traditional final exam. 

  • Final reflection on course content: Give students one essential idea, concept, or principle from the course (or possibly have them choose one) and write a short paper in which they explain how they will use it in the future, either academically, professionally, or personally. Require them to be specific about situations in which their new knowledge will change the way they will do or approach something.
  • Final reflection on their learning: Ask students to explain the most important things they have learned in the course and how that learning has changed their thinking in important ways. There are two simple prompts that can help guide this work. First, ask students to consider what they knew (or didn’t know) at the beginning of the course by completing this sentence: “Before I took this course, I used to think . . .” Then, have them articulate how their thinking has changed by asking them to complete this sentence: “Now I think . . .” You might want to direct them to identify and focus on a specific number (maybe 2-4) of big changes in their thinking.  

II. If a timed, multiple-choice test is the best choice, some strategies for administering tests in Blackboard   

We invite you to schedule a consultation with an EdTech team member for a more detailed conversation about how to set up the test in Blackboard.  

High level recommendations about planning the test as well as specific settings for building and delivering the test. 


1. Recognize that online tests lack the same level of control and oversight as a test administered in a classroom setting, but there are approaches you can take to minimize academic dishonesty.

2. Randomize questions using pools and question sets.  You can utilize question banks prepared by you, obtained from publishers, or found through the Respondus Test Bank Network to build question pools.  In Blackboard you can build your test to randomly draw questions from the pools so that your students are not asked the same exact set of questions on the exam.

a. More about Respondus Test Builder software

3. Randomize question and response options order for objective type questions (multiple choice).  This frustrates the ability of students sharing the answers since the correct response could be “answer C” for one and “answer A” for another.

4. Prepare questions that require deeper thinking or analysis that confound easy look-up in the text or Google search.  Make sure the question prompts students to apply their learning throughout the semester.

5. Make the test available for an extended duration.  As a result of the disruptive measures required by the COVID-19 emergency, students are struggling with several challenges, from dealing with drastic schedule changes to sharing technology resources with those in their households.  Providing a flexible test availability will support their attempt.  Additionally, this will ease the load on the Blackboard system, minimizing the risk of technical problems for your students.

6. Break up a large test. For large roster sections, consider administering the test in multiple time slots for subsets of your class (make the test available at different times for groups of students).  For longer tests, offer multiple tests of subsets of 10 or 20 questions each.

7. Time your exam.  Even if you extend the availability of the exam to 72 hours, you can still require students to complete the exam in a set period time.  For example, you could allow students to begin the test at a time that works best for their circumstances within the 72 hour availability window, but complete it within 90 minutes.  Blackboard offers settings for how the test concludes after the time runs out.

8. Learn the ins and outs of creating the test, adding questions, and settings for administering the test in Blackboard.  Consult with the ITS EdTech team and refer to Best Practices for Online Tests in Blackboard.

9. Use recommended browsers: Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome are the most stable.  Generally, Internet Explorer, Edge, and Safari can present troubles with Blackboard Tests. 
Check Your Browser Compatibility with Blackboard.

10. Prepare your students.  Ensure that students have ample notice and clear instructions for the test. Inform them of the test settings and policies such as whether the test is timed, possible penalties for working after time expires, how many attempts they have, or whether questions will be automatically or manually graded.  Communicate how you will address technical interruptions in student's test-taking to ensure that if an issue comes up, you can handle it swiftly and fairly.  Build-in additional time that you think the test requires to allow potential issues to work themselves out, ultimately saving you time.


III. If you feel your test requires proctoring, some options (and limitations)   

Proctoring options are still under evaluation and should only be considered as a last resort given time constraints, accessibility, and other issues.  Additional follow up as on proctoring will be communicated to survey respondents who indicated interest. 


IV. For Assistance   

To assist you in final assessment, please reach out 

For assistance with  



Creating an alternative assessment 



Schedule an ITLAL consultation


Creating a flexible exam in Blackboard 


Information Technology Services 
EdTech Team 

Schedule a Virtual Appointment 


Proctoring an exam  


Information Technology Services 
EdTech Team