Counter Point: We should not have final exams

Leah Kristufek - 4B Chemical
Posted on: March 30, 2016

Is the goal of education to determine how well the student has learned a subject or to see how well a student performs under pressure? When 50% or more of your final grade depends on your performance in just one 3 hour period it seems rather dubious whether that will reflect your actual understanding of the subject.

There are many alternatives to the typical written exam format that we are accustomed to. Students can be tested by multiple midterms throughout the term or projects. Alternatively oral exams can be used to determine how well a student understands a concept. Having such an emphasis on performance in such a short time period is not an accurate indicator of ability.

By the end of the term you have been through a lot. Between midterms, assignments and projects you have put in some serious blood sweat and tears, not to mention some elbow grease as well, all for maybe 30 or 40% of your final grade. This constant stress adds up, and it manifests differently for different people. Whether you have succumbed to the lure of inactivity, or poor diet, or have decided to give up good sleep patterns you are likely a less effective person at exam time than at the beginning of the term. So why is it assumed that everyone is being evaluated equally on final exams? Would it not be better to evaluate learning in say 20% chunks throughout the term?

A mix of projects and quizzes throughout the term would create more work for educators. However, a wider range of evaluation methods could foster more meaningful learning experiences and act as a more representative determination of a student’s learning. Studies suggest that when concepts are reviewed frequently around the time they are first learned, the knowledge is retained longer. When students attempt to cram the contents of a course into their minds over several days the material learned will be remembered less.

In the real world, we will have the ability to shape our work experiences. High stress situations like those created in an exam can cause anxieties which could be avoided in a future professional environment. For instance, the experience of sitting down and feeling like your mind has been wiped blank or completely misinterpreting a question and not being able to ask questions. In the professional environment, you would be able to ask questions and reference relevant publications. I have had classes where the way you chose to attack the questions has a significant impact on your final grade because one or more questions had incorrect information which leads to an improbable or unrealistic answer. Do you spend significant amounts of time re-checking that one question worth 60% of your final, or do you finish the other 40% worth of the final and just hope you did well enough to pass?

In extreme circumstances when you must defer exams to the next semester, the weight of final exams can significantly jeopardize final grades and your ability to pass. In a worst case scenario, if you become ill or for some other reason are unable to write final exams, one or all exams can be deferred to the next academic term that those courses are offered. This means two things. First of all, your academic term is in limbo since those courses are not completed and secondly, the following exam period you have to re-learn the courses which were differed in addition to the courses you are taking in that term.

Final exams are especially detrimental in first year. In the first semester of university, students are going through a great deal of change. Living away from home, feeding yourself and meeting lots of new people takes up a great deal of time. The fear of failing courses can prevent first year students from becoming involved in student teams and clubs which they may have otherwise joined in September. Extracurricular activities can both foster a support network and help ground a student’s interests that may be expanded on in later university studies. Varsity student athletes have been shown to have some of the highest GPA’s because sport offers an outlet from academic frustrations and vice versa.

Other schools acknowledge that the transition from high school to university is challenging and may affect grades. To encourage a continued interest in learning rather than grades, some universities simply don’t have grades in first year. At MIT, students receive either a ‘pass’ for grades above a C- or a ‘No Record’ for grades below a D. Closer to home, at Queens University, students who fail the first engineering term can redeem themselves by doing ‘J section’. These concessions allow a different type of learning to take place in the first term without the pressures of maintaining an average or being judged against the rest of the class.

University is about learning how to learn. While this includes the fundamentals like linear algebra, calculus and physics, it also means meeting new people and having new experiences. New university experiences might be as mundane as going to a club with friends or riding the bus for the first time. However, extracurricular activities might also lead to irreversible life changes like discovering new passions through design teams or backyard experiments which might form the basis of your future career. Grades aren’t everything. In fact, as important as they are now, after graduation it will be your people skills and ability to contribute within a professional environment that will define our worth.

Final exams with weights greater than 50% of final grades ensure that graduates be competent exam writers but not necessarily competent engineers. While it is currently the best  way to evaluate large groups of people against each other, it may not be the most effective way to foster lifelong learning. Ultimately the question is, should universities foster inquisitive lifelong learners and contributors or should they simply create graduates competent at cramming book knowledge into their minds for a short period of time.