Exams are almost upon us, and, like every year, they can be a bit of a mess. For two weeks, those with final exams live in a constant cycle of studying, stress and uncertainty compounding upon each other until testing is finished. Those with final papers work tiredly into the wee hours of the morning to desperately crank out demonstrations of their research prowess. Those with both just cry a little.
After finals, we worry about how the test turns out until we get the grade back, which, depending on the class, might prompt more worry over our future prospects. The two weeks are unpleasant, overbearing, and place an undue focus on cramming every last bit of knowledge into our heads. Before accepting our overworked fate, though, we should step back and take a look at testing, papers, and most importantly, the “final” variant of both.
Testing, papers, and the like serve to evaluate student knowledge. These can be quite useful throughout the semester, allowing instructors to understand classroom knowledge, react, and redirect class time to widely misunderstood lessons. Of course, the whole practice is undermined after the instructor tacks on 25–50% of the final grade on such assignments. Then, students are incentivised to do whatever necessary to achieve the grade they want, including unhealthy study practices like cramming, over-late work sessions, or even outright cheating. Feedback and growth become secondary to a grade.
Finals only exacerbate this issue. Unlike evaluations throughout the semester, there is little to no redemption following a final. The grade you get combined with the rest of your work is, by its very nature, final. As such, the only incentive for students to participate in a final is for the grade. What matters then, is not learning the material but reciting it effectively at the end of the semester. Cramming and stress make success, and retention past the final is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Written exams are the pinnacle of unfortunate final examinations. The test is meant to answer the question: “Did student X learn content Y?” Although the question (and subsequent answer) are not the best inspiration for continued learning, written exams may not be the best way to find the answer at all. Tests happen in high pressure environments, which makes them ripe for test anxiety and lower performance based on nerves, rather than actual comprehension. Further, students’ cognitive processes work differently under time pressure. Some students may be able to crank out a full 800-word argument on the merits of a certain international theory, whereas others require a bit more time to mull over construction. Finally, testing does not take into account what happens around the test. Different students at different points in their lives at different points of privilege are likely to be able to study more or less for any given test. A student who’s been dealing with family crises for the two weeks leading up to a test is warrant to do worse than a student who’s had time for three hours of concerted study each night.
Final papers work as better evaluators, but not by much. Although they avoid the typical pitfalls of a written exam, their overrepresentation in a final grade, ranging from 30–60%, works against students. It generates undue pressure to perform and incentivises static approaches to papers. Rather than challenge themselves with new research topics, students are inadvertently encouraged to stick close to home, since working in an area of previous expertise typically produces better results than straying from the lane. Further, the pressure plays similar chords as testing on student anxieties while also reproducing and accentuating external factors occupying a student’s life. While the student who’s had a family crisis may be able to wing a final, they certainly can’t crank out a 5000-word essay overnight.
It seems then, that finals in their most ideal form don’t accomplish the goals they set out to, nor perhaps should they. How then, can we create a better system that works for students to actually learn material rather than just hold it for testing purposes?
The answer may cause more than a few groans from a student audience, but more (smaller) tests and papers may help. Since these assignments spread out the impact of failure, it encourages more risk, allows for more feedback, and gives students time to practice material recitation throughout the semester. To accommodate, the university might even need to extend semester dates.
Of course, it is important to temper such a readjustment. Overinflation of small assignments leads to burnout and procrastination of larger projects. Should the assignments prove inflexible as well, they become a larger source of stress than even the most rigorous final. Allowing flexibility for students and modular assignment options on either an ad hoc or systematised basis gives us ways to engage with material throughout the semester.
To complement this, we also need to abolish the comprehensive final written exam and temper our final paper ambitions. Although some may thrive in the testing environment and others may relish long-term projects, neither may actually be reflective of student knowledge. Further, the incentives created by each are unproductive at best and unhealthy at worst. By reducing the ante on both written exams and papers, we can avoid most potential harm finals can generate.
This article will likely do little to change our finals experience this semester. Indeed, it might not make any change at all (none of my arguments are new). It may, however, act as a cathartic catalyst for change, expressing at least one student’s dissatisfaction with high-stakes final exams and papers.