Final Exams…a Tradition Worth Exploring

I have been having many conversations this year with teachers about our practice of administering final exams for students. Although I cannot confirm with certainty, I recently read that the final exam process has been happening since the 1830s. With all the current research on effective assessment, how students learn and knowing that we are required to make decisions that have a student’s best interest as the primary consideration, I have to question why we are still doing this, this way. What is the purpose of a final exam and is it the best way to achieve that purpose?  Many people indicate that a final is a way for teachers to measure whether or not a student has learned what has been taught in the classroom, some indicate its how universities do it so we should too and others sometime claim it prepares them for the “real world.”

I watched a teacher work with a student the other day. She was watching him explain to another student how to do a math calculation. Through this process the student was truly able to demonstrate what he knew. Her biggest fear for this student will be when he is required to write a timed high stakes test with a hundred other students in an extremely structured setting. What approach seems to be more reliable and really indicative of what the student knows?

At random I chose two well known universities, Harvard and Berkley, and googled their final exam procedures. At Harvard only 259 of the 1,137 classes offered finals. Furthermore, it is expected that unless the professor declares early in the semester and notifies the Office of the Registrar that they plan on having a seated final exam they will not have one. Berkley communicates that oftentimes the alternatives (to final exams) may even be advantageous to promote student learning and be a more authentic means of students demonstrating what they have learned.  Surely if these two institutions have changed  we must question this approach in our schools. Even if universities are not changing their final exam procedures, is poor practices by other institutions really an excuse and reason for us to do the same?

As for real world application, other than school and my driver license I can’t remember writing a high stakes exam to demonstrate what I know. Not that long ago I was held accountable to my colleagues and had to demonstrate what I knew regarding a leadership approach. This was not done by sitting in  a room for two or more hours writing a multiple choice exam that would determine whether or not I  could continue as a school administrator. I worked with partners and presented to an audience.

I understand that there are limitations and perhaps different subjects require different approaches, but continuing to do the same thing the same way, just because it’s how it’s been done decades or perhaps even a century ago seems to be unfair and outdated.

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19 Comments

  1. Autar said:

    It is unfortunate that many college professors do not give final exams because they want to start their vacations early, or not spend the time grading. Spaced testing, especially which is cumulative has been found to increase long term learning gains. Many a times, the final exam is the only cumulative exam. The final exam becomes even more important if the course is a prerequisite to another required course. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/everybody-is-stupid-except-you/201012/study-better-the-benefits-cumulative-exams

    June 20, 2015
    • John Valiant said:

      I prefer alternatives to final exams. I’m not feeding tests into scantron machines and feel I’m hitting higher levels of Blooms. Certainly not going on vacation early.

      June 21, 2015
    • Rar said:

      I myself am 35 and have returned to obtain my grade 12 but am hitting the same wall that drove me away from education before, tests. I love quizzes, do all my homework, engage in class, and am daily helping others with understanding concepts. Throughh all this I can obtain 80 to 90% except on tests.These I hit below 70% usually and no I am not nervous nor suffer from anxiety. This is so frustrating and depressing to tutor others and get lower grades than those you help. I am now going for a battery of test to see about a possible L.D. but I doubt it, since I learn easily but have always had memory issues. These issues are slight and I only need mild cues to recall proper details needed yet this is not allowed on tests, the real world does not work this way. I have been a business owner and worked as a mason for nearly 20 years and to this day I keep notes on costs and certain formulas for reference. I myself never learned the time table but work them our on the fly I am so sick of tests determining my worth when even my teachers look to me in class when no one else answers. I am almost at the point of quitting just for the demoralizing aspect of my test results. The 2 who got 95% on last calc. test I tutored and I got 65% hmm really shows divergent thought processes really are not reflected in education. I am very intemedated for university becuase of this, all my teachers say I am exceptional and not to quit yet the motivation to continue lessens with every test.

      January 23, 2016
  2. Thanks for your perspective Autar. Perhaps I did not communicate my thoughts clearly. The point worth considering is that there are alternatives to traditional, seated, lengthy, often over-weighted final exams Most of the alternatives that I have researched take as long or longer to create, assess and structure. These alternatives can still be cumulative, allow for a more authentic form of assessment and give students a better opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.

    June 20, 2015
  3. Jed said:

    I absolutely agree that the merits of final exams, as well as their format, are something we should consider. We should be introspective regarding all our practices. Frankly, I think we agree on the point you’re trying to get at, but… I don’t think you are offering strong arguments for our side.

    “is poor practices by other institutions really an excuse and reason for us to do the same?” This is begging the question. I hope nobody would argue that poor practices by others are a reason for us to adopt poor practices.

    You suggest that we shouldn’t do something just because universities do it, but then you go on to say Harvard and Berkeley do this so “Surely if these two institutions have changed we must question this approach in our schools.” Also, as a side note, it’s not “random” if you chose those two universities.

    I actually hadn’t thought of the “real world” argument for exams, but now that you mention it I think it’s a strong argument. Of course it depends on your field, but I know in engineering and computer science that it is extremely common to take a test or series of tests when applying for jobs. There are thousands of books on the topic, notably regarding how to apply to Google. You also need to take exams to get licenses or certifications for any number of jobs including plumbing, cosmetology, electrical work, engineering, TEACHING, public school administration, etc.

    “continuing to do the same thing the same way, just because it’s how it’s been done decades or perhaps even a century ago seems to be unfair and outdated.” Of course! But that is not an argument FOR change… it’s a straw man argument.

    We need some strong arguments FOR change instead of weak arguments against not change.

    June 21, 2015
    • Thanks Jed, I appreciate your comments and will attempt to address them.
      Firstly, I am aware that there are many arguments for final exams. I chose three reasons that I have heard most recently (universities are doing it, measuring student knowledge, and real world application). You initially say these are not strong arguments, but then comment that you think one of them is a strong argument. Either way they are simply ones I’ve heard. I could have also provided “strong” arguments on what the current research says on authentic assessment, mentioned the work of Dylan William, Rick Wormeli, or recent articles by Edutopia.
      You are correct about what I say about Harvard and Berkely, but I’m not saying we should do what they are doing, but should “question” what we are doing. As for being “random” perhaps I need to clarify. I chose two well known universities that came to mind. Sorry for any miscommunication.
      I am also aware that many places and institutions require tests. Although I haven’t read any current research, I’m sure after decades of the same approach there are bound to many articles and books written about traditional final exams. To be honest I’m not sure what I think of your last point. There is a tremendous amount of current research on assessment (I just didn’t provide it), and have never been a strong proponent of “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it.” But then again, I like to challenge the stauts quo.

      June 21, 2015
      • Jed said:

        Research? Oh Todd, now you’re speaking my language!

        Really my point was that I strongly agree with your sentiment, but I think there are those great reasons out there that you are alluding to… and I wanna hear those!

        June 22, 2015
      • Thanks Jed, and thanks for the “push,” I always welcome that!

        June 24, 2015
    • Maria said:

      Jed, I’m curious what the strong arguments are for “your side,” and if there is any research to support those arguments?
      I’m not sure how your example of jobs requiring a series of tests fits with this discussion around questioning traditional final exams…I actually question the occupations you list having traditional final exams, including teaching, applying for Google and others. I’m sure there are differences from state to state, but as a school administrator with a graduate degree I certainly have never written the “traditional final exam” being explored here either as a student or as a principal. Thankfully I demonstrate my understanding and knowledge in a variety of other ways.

      June 22, 2015
      • Jed said:

        Exactly my point! That’s what I’m curious about too! As I said, Todd’s side is my side, but I feel he hadn’t offered any strong arguments for it. For example, Bruce’s reason below is terrific.

        As for the exams for the jobs I listed that require exams similar to a traditional final exam, they all have examples which are trivial to find. Honestly, I’m baffled how you are not familiar with any of them! You didn’t take a license exam? Don’t you know a single electrician, plumber, or engineer? They all have to take exams! Ask them.

        Teaching: I teach in Massachusetts, where I had to take multiple MTELs, which you can read about here: http://www.mtel.nesinc.com/tests.asp But testing for licenses (including administrative) is extremely common outside of MA as well.

        Google: Anyone who has applied (for a computer science position) can tell you all about the rigorous testing they go through. Here is some information: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2012/01/10/the-secret-to-getting-a-job-at-google-revealed/

        Clearly the idea is that which Todd originally offered, the real world involves many traditional exams, so giving them to students prepares them for the real world.

        June 22, 2015
  4. Bruce said:

    We have been “final test free” for five years now. Instead, students present to an audience what they have learned (Outcomes) in a variety of formats using a variety of mediums. One thing I have really noticed is now instead of “shutting down learning” for three weeks to accomodate those tests (often memorization) we are engadged in high level learning right up to the final days of the school year.

    June 22, 2015
  5. At Dr Frank J Hayden Secondary School in Ontario, our students demonstrate their learning through performance tasks and exams that are unique and cater to student learning interests. Students dialogue with their teachers to share their knowledge and demonstrate through ‘station’ learning. No more rows or multiple choice! http;//dfh.hdsb.ca
    @altonprincipal

    June 22, 2015
    • That sounds amazing Jacqueline. Wish I come and see that in action.

      June 24, 2015
  6. Autar said:

    Instead of simply replacing final exams, lets practice UDL (http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.VYjHPflVhBc) basics for multiple forms of expression. In a small class on Composite Materials (25 students), I use the luxury of a small class by allowing students to either do a project (design and build) or take a final exam. 1/3rd of the students take the project choice and the 2/3rd of the students take the final exam. Simply align your course objectives to assessment, and we are all right.

    June 22, 2015
  7. Mike D said:

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on finals! One of the most important aspects of educators is to question why we do what we do in the classroom, with testing, pedagogical concepts, etc. The purpose or reasoning for something is essential in my eyes. Even if we don’t have a concrete answer as an end result, beginning the process by questioning why is a great first step.

    June 23, 2015
  8. Blair Peterson said:

    I’m not necessarily pro-final exam but I’m not sure that they are an accurate representation of what the students know and are able to do. I do think that the IB exams after 2 years of study are a good representation of what a student knows. This is a major component of their IB grade. When we think about determining grades based on most recent, most consistent and most significant performance than I think that exams can play a role in informing the teacher on a final grade. Exams of some form of summative assessment.

    June 28, 2015
  9. Sharleen Smith said:

    Hey Todd!
    Totally agree with you! Many people especially at the high school say we need these tests so kids can get into universities… But if universities themselves see how exams are not the best measure of learning maybe we are only holding on to exams because that is what we have always done! We at Wilson did not administer final exams to our grade 7s. Stop by and we can chat!! Great post!!

    August 16, 2015

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