I'd like to share a positive experience I had with final exams.
Last quarter I gave what I'll call a prospective final exam in my introductory ethics sections. The idea here is that though the exam was intended to test the skills, etc., that the students were expected to acquire in the course, they had to display these skills with totally unfamiliar material. (I've been kicking around this idea for a while — see this post from 2008 — though the format differs from what I described there.)
Here's how this worked:
The course content is split about evenly between ethical theory and current ethical controversies (abortion, same sex marriage, capital punishment, etc.). About a week prior to the exam, I informed the students of the exam format: answer two essay questions out of five, with each question pertaining to one of the articles in our anthology that they had not been assigned during the term.
Here's what I noticed: I think I got a much better sense from these exams of how well students had actually acquired the relevant philosophical skills. My guess is that a purely retrospective exam is likely to collapse or blur differences in how well students can read philosophical texts, extract arguments, etc. With a retrospective exam, students can get pretty far by memorizing arguments, etc., that we discussed in class. With this exam, my sense was that I could discern sharper differences in student abilities. So I think it's probably superior as a diagnostic or evaluative tool.
Second, I think it compelled students to actually study (which, as we know from previous discussions here at ISW, mysterious to students and to us as instructors). They couldn't just sit down and "review" the material and feel ready. My guess is that though most students did not read all five articles — they probably skimmed them and then chose two or three to focus on in preparation for the exam — they probably read those two or three articles more carefully than anything else they read that quarter.
Third, this kind of exam encourages (I hope) metacognition. I've become a big believer in the notion that genuine, sustained learning requires learners to be metacognitive. When I told the students about the exam format, I reminded them of the course learning objectives and told them that the exam will require them to demonstrate their mastery of these objectives, albeit with new content. And without me to guide them, the students had to monitor their own learning. Have I really understood this argument? What are some assumptions the author is making? Has the author considered the best objections to her position? During the term, those are questions the students can answer indirectly through my feedback and assistance. But here they have to pose those questions for themselves.
Lastly, the most surprising thing: Several students said they liked this exam format. Part of this is that I selected provocative articles (Harris' "The survival lottery," Tooley on infanticide). But I suspect that for some students, they liked the sense of autonomy that such an exam communicates. Those essays were their work in a way that essays they would have written on material addressed in the course would not have been. As one student told me, "I liked that we got to take off our training wheels."
In any case, I think for introductory courses in particular, which (in my opinion) should be mostly about skill-building rather than long-term retention of content, this sort of exam has definite advantages. I suspect that in logic courses, the prospective exam is the norm. It might be tougher to implement in a history of philosophy course, but it could work even there.
What do folks think? Have you tried anything like this yourself?