Under The Pen: The Grand Final Exam Disappearing Act
In the video above, the feelings of three different EIU students on the efficiency of the long-held college staple that is the final exam – traditionally defined as a cumulative exam that covers the entire semester. This is one of the grand stereotypes of college – the long nights under pressure, spent in the library or under cold desk lights, staring into the white of a Microsoft Word document and turning the pages of notebooks until your fingers go numb. The technology has changed, but the final exam method has not – in one form or another, the final exam has been the practice of universities since the 1830s.
But does the final exam actually work? And, whether or not it does, is it actually going away?
At one of the United States’ most prestigious and famed universities, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the final exam may be disappearing for good.
In an article originally published in the Boston Globe and republished on Teaching Monster, a surprising trend was unearthed at Harvard. The tradition in Cambridge was, prior to a few years ago, that the final exam was a mandate for all undergraduate courses, the traditional and infamous three-hour, sit down final exam – a professor was required to request permission from the university to not have the final exam. However, a poll done on campus found that only 23% of total classes had scheduled finals, and the subsequent inquiry found that professors were simply not having them.
Harvard’s solution? The rule was flipped. The norm at Harvard as stated by university brass is now that classes are not expected to have a proper final exam – the professor must instead inform the university that they will be holding one, not the other way around.
This decision isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual usefulness or lack thereof of final exams, but they do tie into a larger trend of questioning the usefulness of the comprehensive final.
“The better approach is to have a more holistic approach to learning where it’s smaller increments, where one learns in steadier and smaller increments,” said Iowa State University professor Linda Serra Hagedorn to the Globe.
The Globe also noted that the University of Arizona has undergone a drastic reduction in the importance of final exams in students’ grades by professor in recent years. A poll cited by the Globe and done by University of Arizona associate professor Thomas Fleming said that 73% of a group of 600 students reported that they learned more via weekly testing methods instead of a cumulative final. A higher number, 93%, reported preferring the weekly method on a general basis.
Some studies have presented that the preference of students may not simply be based on personal preference in regard to workload, ala the opinion of Steven Kinnison. The preference may in fact be related to student health.
A study cited by CNN done at the University of Kentucky found that 30% of students have used “study drugs” like Adderall and Ritalin, prescription drugs used to treat ADHD, and the number increases when dealing with upperclassmen and those in fraternities and sororities. There is scientific debate as to the real harm caused by the drugs, but known side effects of non-prescribed Adderall and Ritalin are headaches, stomach pains, and unwanted jittering and unsteadiness – side effects that are undoubtedly not wanted by students under the gun of final exams.
This is the trend, certainly, but is the trend actually backed by science? Does the cumulative final exam actually result in better learned students and higher grades?
The Globe cites a study done of 1,500 Algebra students at the Richard J. Daley College in Chicago, Illinois that found that students given weekly examinations outperformed students under the traditional model by 16%.
A differently styled study with broader results was published in Teaching Psychology in 2013, one that contradicts the Daley College study. Two sections of students in an introductory psychology course were analyzed. One of the sections, the noncumulative section, “students took three 50-question multiple-choice exams and a comprehensive final in which 55 percent of the questions covered material from across the course.” In the other, the cumulative section, “students took three 50-question multiple-choice exams, but the second and third exams both included 10 questions covering material from the previous exams.” Both sections’ finals covered the same questions, and each took a knowledge retention exam two months after the end of the class.
This study found that, while students in the noncumulative section reported being in a happier state of mind and there was no difference in study preference or perceived difficulty, higher grades were reported in the cumulative section of the class – often by a full letter grade.
However, this study does not cover the traditional model of the cumulative final exam – it supports cumulative exams on a micro level, but the jury is still scientifically out on the question of the infamous cumulative final exam.
It is entirely possible that the science favors the dreaded cumulative final exam, much to the chagrin of students everywhere. However, the trend is moving in the opposite direction – and who will inevitably win the debate and re-establish tradition is completely up in the air while students remain under the pen.