At my college this semester, just a few weeks before spring final exams, the administration decided to entirely throw out the prior process for scheduling final exams (which has been in use for at least two decades, I think). Whereas scheduling, duplication, and collection of final exams was formerly centralized, basically it all immediately regressed to being each department and instructor's responsibility. Suddenly there are many (hundreds) of instructors and students with conflicts (two courses at same time in different rooms) and no defined process for solving them. Various instructors and departments are arbitrarily shifting finals to other days, times, rooms, etc. (which seems likely to cause more conflicts).

Our day class meetings are traditionally one-hour apiece, and our final exams have always been two-hour blocks. One of the people partially involved with the recent decision has claimed that these problems would be best solved by having a few days where departments with large common finals hold theirs, then followed by standard class meetings for a week in which the majority of instructors can do whatever they want; possibly extend the meeting to two hours, or split the final into two separate days, etc. The final claim is that this latter protocol is "how it’s done in almost every other college in America".

In my limited experience, it's hard to see how this proposed process (keep standard class meetings and let instructors work out final exam times on their own) is common or feasible. Is it truly how it's done in almost all U.S. colleges? If not, what is the most common protocol? Any references or evidence to support claims one way or the other?

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    I have no idea how the universities I attended actually did scheduling, but it was centralized. It also generally was smooth. Undergrad was something like 5 days for finals, 3 time slots per day. If you had more than two scheduled in a day you could move one (somehow - that never happened to me or anybody else I knew). Letting each department schedule things in a vacuum seems to be decidedly sub-optimal, and likely not at all what happens much of anywhere successfully.
    – Jon Custer
    May 21, 2019 at 16:48
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    Most colleges in the US are community colleges. I don't have any direct experience with community colleges, but a google search about our local community college doesn't turn up any final exam schedule or a final exam period on their calendar. Maybe this system is normal for community colleges? May 21, 2019 at 17:03
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    @NoahSnyder Meanwhlie, one community college near me states that finals are during regular class time on one of 5 days while the other has a very detailed schedule with 3 exams per day for 6 days and with each possible class schedule listed in a slot. Several possible conflicts are identified too. Night classes have a separate schedule.
    – mkennedy
    May 21, 2019 at 17:48
  • @mkennedy: Those both go to the same school, I think you miscopied one of your links. May 21, 2019 at 18:18
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    Whatever the policy, one would hope that it's unusual to drastically change the policy after syllabi have been set and distributed, and even less common to do so right before the usual finals period...
    – Anyon
    May 21, 2019 at 20:04

4 Answers 4


In the two major US state universities that I have either been a student or taught in, the process was roughly the same:

Final exam times were based on the first day of the week course time for the main course meeting, typically a 'lecture' section. Every course that started at 9am on a Monday had the same final exam time. Every course that started at 11am on a Tuesday had the same final exam time. All these decisions were made centrally.

The exam times were mostly unrelated to the actual course times, since the final exam slots were longer than the actual class meetings, but it ensured that no one had overlapping final times because no students would have two courses that met at the same time. The exception was courses that were specifically night courses, which also had night finals, with the assumption that some proportion of the students in those courses were not full-time students and may have had other daytime responsibilities.

I believe there were procedures to allow for simultaneous finals for courses with multiple sections, but I am less familiar with how those processes worked; I believe the centralized time was chosen and then arrangements were made for the small number of students for which there was a conflict.

There were also processes for students who ended up with >2 finals in the same day to make alternative arrangements, but again, these circumstances happened rarely, especially because not ever course actually utilized their final exam slot as anything but a due date for a paper/project/etc.

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    This is exactly how it was done in my major R1. I once ended up with three actual exams on Monday of finals week. May 21, 2019 at 16:55
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    Can confirm that all four universities I know (2 public, 2 private, all R1) work roughly this same way. May 21, 2019 at 17:02
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    They usually have dedicated day(s)/slots for multi-section courses, scheduled by the course type, i.e. all Physics common finals are at the same time.
    – user71659
    May 21, 2019 at 18:45
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    I don't think that's as universal. For example, at my school the large math classes are in different slots from each other. There's not enough classroom space to run exams simultaneously for two courses this large. May 21, 2019 at 20:05
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    @AzorAhai one semester the exams for the 3 core course in my major were randomly scheduled back-to-back-to-back. The department had to go to the central time tabling people to fix that one.
    – StrongBad
    May 22, 2019 at 1:48

Both models you describe, a finals period with longer timeslots which is coordinated by the school and having finals during ordinary class periods, seem to be commonly used at schools in the US but it appears that which is used depends a lot on (for lack of a better word) the level of the school. The former schedule is dominant (and perhaps universal) at state flagships, top research schools, and elite liberal arts colleges. Both schedules seem to be common at community colleges. I don't have access to good statistics, but it's plausible that the latter schedule is the most common one at community colleges (which would explain your administration's explanation).

I'd speculate that one reason is that community college classes tend to have many shorter exams throughout the semester rather than a single final worth a large percentage of the grade. (Of course, this means it's a terrible idea to switch systems during the middle of the semester, but it might suggest an alternative for future semesters.)

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    Another reason may be that large university students are more often "typical" full time students, so they can be expected to be available as long as the multiple course conflict is resolved, whereas community college students are often non-traditional part time students who may have work, child care, etc., and have a harder time arranging to show up at a different time. May 22, 2019 at 17:42
  • @user3067860: That's a great point, which I'm a little embarrassed not to have thought of. May 22, 2019 at 19:07

When the times of exams clashed, what usually happened in my equivalent of high school in UK, was that one of the exams was taken by the student on time, and then the next one they would be escorted to by personnel to complete later than students who could complete it on time. The personnel would take them along a quiet route to a separate room to complete the exam.

So things like these do happen, however your educational institution might of not been ready for it. The departments should have worked jointly on shared exams calendar to avoid clashes, or arrangements such as the ones above should be made. I guess it depends on the facilities available.

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    That was part of the long-standing protocol at my school which was just discarded. May 22, 2019 at 13:18

Hold a one hour final. Do it in your standard classroom and on the last day of normal classes. Abbreviate the course to cut last week's section of material. Do review during last week of school.

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    This is likely against policy. Finals have to be taken in the final period to allow for study time. Also certain events, like withdrawls/incomplete deadlines are set to the beginning of the finals period.
    – user71659
    May 21, 2019 at 18:47
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    This is not an answer to the stated question. May 21, 2019 at 21:52
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    @user I've never heard of those deadlines being that late May 22, 2019 at 3:16
  • @AzorAhai Common to let you withdraw up to the last day of class: UCLA. Grad students often have more leeway, my school lets them drop up to the commencement of the final.
    – user71659
    May 22, 2019 at 3:40
  • @user71659 At my alma mater, it was about 70% of the way, except for one unlimited annual drop May 22, 2019 at 15:52

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