Departmental Final Exams - A Tool for Quality Assurance

Wallace S. Venable, West Virginia University

1993 Frontiers in Education Conference, page 134

As teachers, we tend to think of examinations as a way to evaluate students Exams also provide information on instructional goals and effectiveness.

At West Virginia University we have been using a Departmental Final Examination (DFE) as a tool in Instructional Quality Assurance for over thirty years. This began as a check on Helen Plants' experiments with Programmed Instruction (PI), when it was felt that PI should not be used unless it was "as good as lectures." As other ASEE and FIE papers have shown, it was. We found that the DFE's provided valuable feedback on instruction in several other ways, and we continue to use them.


All students in Statics, Dynamics, and Mechanics of Materials take a common examination prepared by an experienced instructor who is NOT teaching the course during that semester. Current instructors have no input into the particular questions, but examination problems are based on a published departmental syllabus, and all instructors are invited to review past examination problems.

Each instructor grades all papers for one or more problems, as answered by all students. The numerical stores are averaged by section and overall. Numerical results are quietly given to the instructors, and to a small group of administrators.

Instructors are required to count the DFE toward the course grade, but the actual weighting is a matter of individual discretion.

Uses of Results:

We recognize that there are many reasons why a particular section of a course may have a high, or low average, either on a particular problem or overall. Instructors are not targeted for criticism for a low score. No entry of scores is made within an instructor's personnel file, except at the request of the individual.

On the other hand, instructors with consistently high scores are able to cite this as evidence of teaching excellence on evaluations for promotion and tenure.

The DFE encourages instructors to cover all topics on the departmental syllabus, and to conduct a thorough review of the course material at the end of the semester. This helps assure that students have prerequisites for other courses.

The comprehensive, and blind, nature of the exam helps individual instructors to recognize topics where their teaching has been particularly strong or weak. It strongly reduces any tendency to skip topics on the basic syllabus while leaving them free to cover additional topics of their choice. DFE results help identify strengths and weaknesses in textbooks. DFE results may help an instructor confirm a feeling that a particular section has been above or below average in ability or effort. This helps an instructor defend an unusual grade distribution or an individual grade. The results help the demonstrate the level of students' skills at the time they completed the courses. This helps in defending the program in "you don't teach xxx" arguments. The overall collection of examination problems for each course helps define the departmental objectives in measurable terms, and provides a basis for discussions of changes in coverage. Instructor Reactions: Not all instructors respond positively to the DFE. Some instructors oppose them because they expect their students to have low scores. Some of these do not want anyone to know how they are doing in the classroom because they are performing poorly. Others expect low scores because they do not follow the standard syllabus, even for a service course. Some instructors, like students, suffer from test anxiety. Their students may score well, as they themselves have, but they suffer emotionally through the exam process. Many instructors find the DFE a useful tool for improving their instruction. These teachers enjoy, and joke about, a friendly competition to see who can do the best job of bringing a classroom full of students to a high average competence level.