Adventures in Ethics and Science

While our exams were weeks ago, I know that some folks (especially high school students) are just finishing up. So these observations sent to me by a reader may be timely:

I believe that if students are passing their classes with a B and above they should not have to take final exams.

Most students drop letter grades when taking an exam that is an accumulation of material that they have to dig out of the crevices of their brain from 5 to 6 months ago. I cannot remember what I had for breakfast last week; how can we expect our students to try and remember what they learned in January by the time May or June comes?

Students have to take final exams in all classes and spend hours trying to study, just to stress themselves out and end up not doing well.

Yes, this is good opportunity for the student that has slacked off all year to try and bring their grade up, but let’s not punish the students that put in the effort all through the school year, let’s reward them with not having to take finals, in any grade.

I know some schools do this for Seniors, but to me it just makes sense to do it for all grades. In addition, it would be easier on teacher, less stressful on families. (My house was nuts for one month before finals and my Senior took them two week before my Freshman, and I have how many more years of this to look forward to?)

As an example my Freshman had a “B” average in Science before the exam, received a “D” on the exam and wound up with a “C” for the class, and in the midst of all this we had a death in the family. Talk about stress………

Why are final exams given, what is the purpose and what does it really tell you about the student? It should be about what they do all school year, and not one moment in time.

My response after the jump.

What teachers intend final exams to do ought to be connected to what they want the course itself to do. If the point of the course is to learn how to use the principles of chemistry to explain a bunch of scenarios, or to read and write fluently in French, or to solve math problems, then presumably the final exam should be a final opportunity to demonstrate that you have mastered the goal.

There are, I grant, final exams that seem to focus on trivia and minutiae. It is possible that some such exams only seem to harp on tricky or obscure details — because, if one has mastered the material, one understands how these details are connected to the guiding principles or theories. But it’s also possible that some instructors are most interested in testing recall of facts. Framework-free facts wouldn’t be my choice for evaluating student learning, but not everyone does things my way.

One student habit that I know drives a lot of teachers bananas is “learning” some chunk of material for a test and then promptly forgetting it. (Look, I mastered redox reactions — I have the test to prove it! So, don’t make me balance another redox reaction now … because I don’t actually remember how to do it.) It’s hard to blame students for this, though, if the way they’re taught doesn’t stress the connections between the various chunks of course material. If they are presented with the task of memorizing facts or mastering skills at the surface level and regurgitating those facts or skills on tests, who can fault them for doing just that? Teaching that ties the course material together — and a final exam that really is a culminating experience evaluating how well the student has made the connections — would make exam preparation much less like being an amnesiac trying to get your memory back.

So, one thing I think a final exam might be good for is assessing how well students have grasped the course material as a connected body of knowledge or set of skills (or combination of those two).

Another good thing a final exam could do is give students who have taken a longer time to “get” the course material a chance to show that they’ve gotten it. Sure, some of these students may have taken longer to master the material because they’ve been slacking. But there is a sizable proportion of students who really need a longer time to struggle with the course material before it clicks into place. Insisting that understanding needs to happen on a predetermined schedule has always seemed a little cruel to me, and sometimes blowing a midterm does more to cement your understanding of a piece of course material than lucking into mostly correct answers does. Thus, I think a final exam or something like it can level the playing field for the person who gets to the end of a course with good mastery but has had to work harder to get there.

Undeniably, there are students with test anxiety. Final exams freak them out, and their performance may not be any kind of reflection of what they actually know. Having an alternative method for judging their mastery at the end of the course would be humane — though of course, you’d have to work out how to make the information it gave you equivalent to what the final exam is giving, and ideally, it wouldn’t add too much additional time (in terms of preparing it and grading it) for the instructor. To the extent that some final exam-type experiences in life may be unavoidable, though, it’s probably worth it for the folks with severe test anxiety to get some help with strategies for facing them down.

And even for students without bona fide test anxiety, studying for exams can be stressful. Part of the stress may come from insufficient information about what to expect — what kinds of things will I have to do on the exam to show what I know? What will the question format be? What kinds of skills are most important in how I’ll be evaluated? Related to this, some of the stress may come out of not being clear on how the material for the course fits together. Whether this uncertainty is due to the teacher or the student will vary widely, but sometimes well-structured review sessions can help a lot.

The big question: Should good grades all through the term outweigh a poor showing on the final exam? This is really hard to answer definitively. Sometimes a poor performance on the final exam reveals that the student hasn’t put the individual pieces together; if that’s a goal of the course, the student really has fallen short. Other times, though, a bad grade on the final exam is reflective of the student having a really bad day. If there have been other assignments or activities or tests through the term where the student demonstrated not just recall but understanding of the material and integration of material from different parts of the course, there may be good grounds to give less weight to the final exam in judging the student’s overall mastery. If the final exam is the one shot for demonstrating this kind of “big picture” mastery, it may be harder for the teacher to distinguish who didn’t quite get it from who was having a bad day.

Short of moving to a system of one-on-one oral exams, or sticking mastery probes in students’ brains, the instruments we have will sometimes fail to give the information we want from them. But thinking hard about what exactly we want exams to measure — and before that, about precisely what kind of learning we want our students to undergo — can help exams work better. Moreover, making it clear to the students what kind of learning we’re asking them to do, and how on the exams they can demonstrate that they’ve done it, can make exams more like assessment tools than instruments of torture.

Pencils down, and enjoy your summer!


  1. #1 JP Stormcrow
    June 14, 2007

    If the final exam is the one shot for demonstrating this kind of “big picture” mastery, it may be harder for the teacher to distinguish who didn’t quite get it from who was having a bad day.

    I still do think going for the “big picture” mastery at the end of the year/semester is worthwhile to avoid the “cram then mind purge” style of “learning”. (I know of what I speak on that one …) The key to me is “big picture” though. I recently helped one of my children study for a bio final for a year-long course. There were ~400 questions to be filled in on the study sheet which had to be completed and handed in – the vast majority seemed to be random detailed pieces of information of varying importance from within the bowels of the various modules – and apparently the final was similar. We both found the whole exercise to be quite frustrating and not conducive to reviewing the overall important concepts one more time – more like a “biology factoid scavenger hunt”. (And, of course, with enough time one would ideally review the big stuff in a structured way and then attack the details … but … )

  2. #2 Emily
    June 14, 2007

    First of all, I don’t believe that most students drop a letter grade on finals that cover a whole semester’s worth of material.

    Secondly, this letter argues from a very grade-centric rather than learning-centric position. The writer essentially says that students who have high grades shouldn’t have to jeopardize those grades in an examination of how well they have learned the material. Shouldn’t those high grades reflect that they have already mostly learned the material?

    Certainly final exams that are trivia quizzes (preceded by a semester filled with trivia quizzes) are going to be particulary stressful and won’t reflect much of what the students know. Still, that tells me the problem is with poor course and test design, not necessarily with the final exam concept.

  3. #3 llewelly
    June 14, 2007

    I had countless classes in grade school where I got top-of-class grades on all the exams, but got Cs or lower for the course, because I didn’t complete the homework (curiously, I didn’t have that problem in college …). Should I blame homework for robbing me of good grades that should have been mine, take up the sword, and crusade against homework?

  4. #4 Jen
    June 14, 2007

    I’ve been subject to both models, ones in which I did not have to take the exam if my grade was over a certain level, and ones that I had to take, no matter what. I’ve also had both exams that tested my knowledge of what we might call subject related trivia, and my knowledge of the concepts that were taught throughout the course. While I certainly appreciate not having to show up and take an exam, especially since it means I don’t have to pay to get to school on the train or for parking another day, I’d much rather have to spend the money to go take an exam that isn’t full of trivia. There are plenty of websites that will let me take tests on subject area trivia from the comfort of my own home for free.
    Additionally, when an exam has been composed of something other than pure trivia, I have never received a score that has been markedly lower (which I will call greater than 10 points) from the scores I received on other assignments given throughout the semester. Usually though, such an exam would come from a class in which the grades weren’t based mostly or entirely on shorter tests of random facts, but upon other assignments which seemed to have a purpose beyond serving as something from which to derive grades. Heck, sometimes I even do better on these sorts of tests, perhaps for the very reason that I did need more time to totally get the course material. When it comes to tests including little more than game show questions with multiple choice answers, I show a great mastery of guessing strategies.
    Back to not giving exams at all… it’s a great way to decrease attendance, or in highschool, you can assure yourself these students will stop paying attention once they know they aren’t responsible for those last few weeks or days of teaching. In a math class I took with this as the policy, there was simply no reason for me to show up after the last test was given back. I hadn’t been absent before then, I wasn’t responsible for any more of what was to be taught, and the profesor told me I didn’t need to come anymore. There was no way I was going to argue with that one.

  5. #5 monson
    June 14, 2007

    well much of the grades in first year were not really earned. I am taking a Stats class right now. I expect the homework lab grad to be about 95. This will be about 25% of the total grade. The final will show who knows what. I think the point is to leave the class knowing the material.

  6. #6 Harry
    June 14, 2007

    First, I’ll go along with the consensus that final exams should emphasize “the big picture” for the course and should be used to force students to pull together concepts from throughout the course (if possible). Just because must teachers or professors don’t do this is not reason enough for doing away with final exams for people with good grades. Just because you’re a good driver and you’ve never had a speeding ticket, should you be allowed to not use turn signals or to not stop at red lights? (I’ll stop with the split infinitives)

    That being said, I would like to add two extra arguments for final exams for everyone:

    1. Final exams help students learn. Most students admit to cramming for any type of test and then forgetting the information immediately afterwards. Final exams, as a minimum, require students to revisit and memorize the material at least one more time. As repetition is good for the soul, I submit that final exams help a student remember more from a course. And just because a student got a good grade on one test doesn’t indicate that he/she has retained that information across the semester and beyond.
    2. Final exams force students to learn a lot of material in a short period of time. Education is as much a process as it is a product, and assimilating a large amount of data under a deadline is a great skill to have. It comes in handy in most professional settings. As most skills require practice for improvement, the annual (or semi-annual) routine of finals helps a student develop this ability.

    In an ideal setting, students would learn and grow without assigning a grade. However, the average student requires such an encouragement. And even some good students perform a little better (1) under a deadline and (2) with a grade incentive. Or at least with the incentive of what comes with a good grade…

    For students that respond poorly and crumble to stress or just have a bad day on test day, one would hope a university or school system would give a teacher or professor enough freedom to make value judgements on those students’ behalf.

  7. #7 Kevin W. Parker
    June 14, 2007

    My highs school handled final exams as described in the quote: if you had at least a B average at the end of the semester, you didn’t have to take the final. If nothing else, it was major motivation (for me, at least) to maintain that B average!

  8. #8 Kimmitt
    June 14, 2007

    I love the idea of a “B” as a grade indicating full mastery.

  9. #9 Anne-Marie
    June 14, 2007

    I always feel like I have mastered the material much better after studying for finals than I would have if I were just allowed to take the tests and then “not worry about” the information anymore. Even in classes where I am extremely interested in the material and really want to know it, studying for just one test on it doesn’t ingrain it nearly as well as tying everything together as a big picture at the end of the semester. One thing professors can do to make this easier is to make all the unit tests cumulative. This does increase stress on each unit test, but makes studying for finals so much easier and also makes it much easier to see how all the material is connected as you go along.

    Question: What is your (or any other commentors’) opinion on using old exams as study tools? I have many professors that give us old exams, and knowing the format and angle of questions is a huge help that relieves a lot of anxiety going in.

    *edited comment from original, mistyped my e-mail and URL at first, sorry*

  10. #10 Tanya
    June 15, 2007

    It was common in my High School for finals to be optional if you had a sufficient grade already. Some teachers had a policy that we had to take the final, but if it hurt our grade it wouldn’t count. In fact, I’ve encountered the latter policy a few times in college. I have to say that mandatory comprehensive finals are good in classes where I care and may need the information in a future class, but not so much in others. IMHO if the tests are strictly multiple-choice, then chances are I don’t care or won’t need it, or both. Now, I’m going to need the info learned in Chem1 for Chem2, and hopefully beyond. Even though its harder, I’m glad there will be a comprehensive final.

    I apologize for rambling, its well past bedtime.

  11. #11 Matt Penfold
    June 15, 2007

    When I studied Computer Science at university (in the UK) I do know that how you had performed during the year could make a difference when it came to marking the paper. If your exam paper was borderline between two grades then it was the practice to look at how you had done on the coursework, and how you contributed during classes. I benefited from this as on on paper I did not do was well as I would have liked but still managed to get an A because the marker knew I had asked some intelligent questions and otherwise show I knew the subject.

  12. #12 yukon slim
    June 15, 2007

    I find myself agreeing with Emily (and, like Kimmitt, I found myself chuckling at the implication that a ‘B’ showed mastery).

    To be honest, I can’t remember finals in high school. But as an instructor at a community college (mostly human phys and intro chem), the final exams I give are primarily just last exams (exams over the material covered in the last 3-4 weeks of the course) with a little bit of cumulative material added. Generally, I give them a pretty good idea of what that cumulative material will deal with – the idea being that it limits stress but still requires them to revisit important information and renew the proper neuronal connections.

    As several others have noted, it’s our job as teachers to make sure that the final exam (or any exam) isn’t just a trivia contest. The solution is to improve the exams, not surrender the notion that students should actually remember something beyond the end of the semester.

  13. #13 sakthi
    June 16, 2007

    Which one make better sense,whether assessing the students performance for whole year or else examining their performance with one moment,perhaps with couple of exams..For me,definitely first one..Its okey to give final chance for who are performed poorly in the whole year..
    Car Breakdown Cover

  14. #14 Renee
    June 16, 2007

    My mom likes to tell me about how she took a calculus course her freshman year of college, and flunked the first exam. But, she aced the final, so the teacher gave her an A, and everyone was mad at her for it.

    The point of classes is that you’re supposed to learn something, at least semi-permanently. I think students that have an A, perhaps, might not need to take a final… but if finals aren’t for B students, who are they for? C students are unlikely to improve their grade dramatically with a final if they haven’t been doing well all year. I see final exams as directed towards B students more than anyone else- they learned the material, but not really well. The final exam is a good push to expand on what they already know and possibly get an A.

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