The disappearance of the final exam

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 13, 2010

Today we have a guest post from Olivia Coleman (who contributes to another blog).  Her post on the decline of the final exam follows on the heels of an interesting article in the Boston Globe — “The Test Has Been Canceled” — which generated quite a bit of buzz on the PHYSLRNR listserv, where geeks like me discuss physics teaching.  Much of the discussion there centered on the testing effect  — or the fact that quizzing can be a learning device, not just a way to test if students understand.  The bulk of those studies on the effect of retrieval on learning were done by Karpicke and Roediger, at the University of Washington.  Some nice quotes from those two researchers were shared on PHYSLRNR:

“In education today, people tend to think of tests as dipstick devices.  You stick it in to measure what people know. But every time you test someone, you change what they know.” – Henry L. (Roddy) Roediger III

“The testing effect cuts against the lay understanding of memory.  People usually imagine memory as a storage space, as a space where we put things, as if they were books in a library. But the act of retrieval is not neutral. It affects the system.”  -Jeffrey D. Karpicke

You can see a nice summary of those studies — and links to the papers — on the Wikipedia entry on the Testing Effect.

So, without further ado — here is Olivia’s thoughtful post about the disappearance of the final exam:

The Disappearance of the Final ExamStudying for finals

Final exams. This two-word phrase has left students in the cold clutches of fear since teachers across the nation first decided that the best way to end a semester or school year was with a blowout test. In fact, college professors have been handing their students final exams since the 1830s, a recent article in the Boston Globe reported. But now a new movement is taking place in some of the country’s most prestigious schools, where the nearly 200-year-old tradition of final exams is being phased out in favor of some other type of final evaluative project, or none at all.

The traditional final exam used to be an inescapable part of every college student’s academic career. At the end of each term, a final examination would be proctored in order for professors to determine whether or not individual students actually learned any of the material taught. Yet, in the spring term at Harvard University last year, out of the 1,137 undergraduate courses held, only 259 of them had a final exam scheduled, the Boston Globe reported. This is the lowest number of final examinations since 2002, and may indeed plummet even more as the years go by. In fact, the rapid disappearance of the final exam is so widespread that colleges in Cambridge now have a new rule where professors who wish to schedule a final exam must seek special permission in order to do so.

So why have final exams suddenly found themselves on the endangered species list? One possibility is that professors may be considering different avenues on assessing their students’ knowledge of a particular course. Many instructors have replaced the high-stress and one-off final examination with lengthy projects, such as a final paper where students can take their time researching, writing, and rewriting, or a final group project presentation, which students can also take their time preparing. In addition, the value of the final exam is being scrutinized. After all, the final exam is typically weighed more heavily than any other assignment that students complete during the school year, and professors are beginning to question whether that is a fair way to determine whether or not students have learned anything. But that is not to say that examinations as a whole are not valuable. Instead, the question is whether or not the final exam itself should be considered more valuable than any other examination.

Tests are undoubtedly useful tools in the classroom to encourage students to study. As touched on before on sciencegeekgirl, tests help students learn by asking them to recall bits of information from their memories about a particular subject, thereby increasing the chances of students being able to remember this bit of information again and again. In addition, even when students get test answers wrong, they are more likely to learn better having been tested than if they had simply studied the material without being tested on it, an article authored Nate Kornell stated. Some professors who have opted against final exams simply have embraced the value of testing and endeavor to take it to another level by administering regular tests throughout the semester rather than relying on two huge exams the midterm and final to gauge student learning.

Yet, the elimination of the final exam may not necessarily be a step in the right direction. After all, if students were regularly performing well on these exams, then professors would not have gone through the trouble of getting rid of them. This indicates that professors may be phasing out finals simply because they do not wish to see their students fail. In addition, final examinations push students to revisit older material and relearn some of the things that they may have forgotten from earlier in the year. Final exams also encourage students to once again tackle topics that they previously found difficult, making it more likely that perhaps this time around they may finally understand the materials.

The education scene is changing. This has been evident since dusty chalkboards began giving way to dry erase boards, which then gave way to projected computer screens. However, unlike the change in classroom writing surface, the disappearance of the final exam has particularly struck a nerve with students and former students everywhere. For the past 180 years, final exams have been in place and it is strange to think of an academic setting where they no longer exist. Yet, the fading out of final exams is indeed occurring. Perhaps in a few years time, professors and students will know whether or not this change was for the better.


This guest post is contributed by Olivia Coleman, who writes on the topics of online colleges and universities.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id: olivia.coleman33

{ 1 comment }

Andy Rundquist October 13, 2010 at 8:06 pm

I tell my students that the guiding principle behind my final exams is that the students should still be able to pass it 6 months later. They tend to be conceptual, like explain all the terms in the Bernoulli equation, or Does the source speed affect the numerator or denominator of the Doppler equation and why. This helps me write it and them study for it as they flip through the notes and the book and constantly ask “would Andy care that I know this six months from now”.

What I’ve stopped saying is “and you should ace it now” since often students can still struggle with it.

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