In a course, an exam is an appendix, a vestigial organ. If that is not the case then the conclusion should be: “the course has not evolved much”. After all, most probably, vestigial organs are consequences of unfinished/ongoing evolution.
Still, in the present scenario, this appendix cannot be cut off and everyone has to bear with it. Agreed that the students who are not very serious and sincere about the course become attentive only during a week or two around the exam-day, and can end up learning (or memorizing) a bit. However, exams are the most useless part of studies for the students who are constantly thinking about the new knowledge they are acquiring. Exam time is a complete waste of time and a highly stressful time for them. Actually, they are forced to do what exactly is not expected out of them: cramming things! Anyway, there are reasons to believe that written exams are needed and here we shall not go into debating it irrespective of whether we agree with it or not. Question is: can we make an exam a bit more useful? Following two ideas may be worth pondering in this context:
1) Rather than asking in the exam what the students should have learnt in the course, may be one can go a bit fancy. One can prepare questions which present before the students newer concepts that were not discussed in the classroom. Such questions can still use the hopefully-known-and-mastered techniques acquired during lectures. With enough hints, the questions can manoeuvre the examinees into doing calculations themselves and, thus, relishing the excitement of learning new stuff. This can also be put to instructors’ use. For example, in a mid-semester exam such questions can be used to allow the students unknowingly prepare for the coming lectures.
2) Another idea is to nonchalantly include few questions carrying “zero” marks. These questions can very well be of the type discussed in the point (1) above. This creates excitement (and, may be, sweet confusion!). Some examinees will ask during the exam if there is any extra credit for doing such questions. Some will not even notice that the question carries no marks, and some will enjoy answering the question more than any other question in the exam-paper! Among others, this idea serves two main purposes: firstly, it tells the students that learning doesn’t stop with the last lecture of a course; and secondly, it spreads a bit of comic relief in otherwise grim exam-hall(-hell?).