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!