Evaluate administration of final exams
Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, May 7, 2012 11:05
As the semester draws to an end, students are busy studying for their final exams. These end-of-the-year tests are routine at Brandeis and elsewhere, with the semester culminating in a week or two dedicated to their administration. Their widespread presence at colleges isn’t unwarranted: they serve as a convenient form of cumulative assessment for classes where final papers may not apply.
Final exams have become a primary target for those opposed to high-stakes testing. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticized final exams for coming in the way of learning, arguing that seemingly benign final tests can defeat the purpose of learning as students become much too focused on a single test. It proposes getting rid of final exams and replacing them with other, more creative means of assessment, such as classroom-based projects that are not formally graded.
To a large extent, those against final exams are right to believe that it interferes with learning. Final exams differ from other tests during the semester in two major ways. First, they are generally weighed heavily in a student’s final grade. Grade-conscious students can fixate on the final exam, making learning second to getting a good grade on a single test.
Second, final exams are often cumulative and require students to know material learned throughout most of the semester. Having to know a large quantity of material at once encourages students to cram and absorb content quickly in preparation for their exam, which can hamper long-term retention.
However, getting rid of final exams altogether would be impractical. Tests provide a convenient way of assessing students’ learning. Projects and homework assignments can only go so far in capturing students’ true understanding of material, particularly in the sciences. Also, tests incentivize students to dedicate time to learning subject matter. Most importantly, if implemented properly, final exams allow an opportunity for students to review everything they have learned and view all the course content as one unit.
There may be a way of implementing final exams while avoiding the negative consequences the tests can have on learning. The key is to realize that the problem is not the final exams per se, but instead what they are testing. Many of these tests are designed in such a way that students are rewarded for relying on short-term memory of facts and procedures rather than a deep understanding of concepts. Because there is a relatively large breadth of content for final exams, students benefit from studying each topic a little and knowing material just well enough for the exam.
A different approach should be taken to cumulative exams. Instead of testing students on topic-specific questions from throughout the class, students should be tested on the overarching themes and concepts that bring the wide span of material covered in the course together. In preparing for such an exam, students would not benefit from memorizing specific facts or problems.
A student would instead benefit from looking at the course material from the macro level, trying to understand major themes. Unlike memorizing specific facts, this kind of analysis can improve long-term retention.
Another major pitfall instructors should avoid is teaching to the test. While this can occur with any type of exam, it is particularly common for final exams because they are so important to students’ grades.
During the last few classes of the semester, some instructors openly shift focus from learning material to preparing for the final and even discussing what will or won’t be on the test. While reviewing material at the end of the semester can help students learn, when doing so in the context of test preparation, learning can easily become auxiliary. Furthermore, it can interfere with student interest, as class time is focused on preparing for a test rather than fostering curiosity.
One strategy for preventing final exams from compromising learning is to change the way instructors guide studying. While students are thrilled when teachers specify what topics they should study through review sheets or study outlines, making studying for the exam easier will harm them in the long run. Rote memorization comes into play when students approach studying from a topic-by-topic approach.
In the place of review sheets that tell students what topics they should know, instructors should consider guiding student studying through a set of focus questions. This way, even if students look at class material through the lens of the final exam, they will be analyzing and grouping material by general themes. This is precisely the sort of thinking schools should cultivate in their students because it helps students retain material and think critically.
Despite their bad reputation, final exams do not necessarily hurt student learning. If approached correctly, they can help students tie together everything they have learned throughout the semester, encourage studying and accurately evaluate understanding. Because final exams play such an important role in college coursework, Brandeis should consider whether these tests match the school’s educational goals. While high-stakes testing may not be the most ideal form of final assessment, finding a suitable replacement for the final exam would require a great deal of research and experimentation.
Maintaining final exams while changing the approach the University takes to them is a more realistic solution that can result in significant improvements in the quality of education that each student receives.