Across the nation, respected educators are calling for changes to one of the most stressful weeks of any student’s life: final exam week. Many now advocate for a change to the current format of final exams.
Harvard and Yale actually invented the idea of having midterm and final written exams in the 1830s, yet now even a founder of the idea is moving it. Jay M. Harris, Dean of Undergraduate Education at Harvard University, recently spoke to Teaching Monster about a change in school policy regarding final exams. According to Harris, only 23% of undergraduate courses and 3% of graduate classes included a sit-down, traditional cumulative final exam at the world-renowned institution.
As more and more professors and other educators point out the flaws in traditional finals, other options are being explored.
In fact, many educators and administrators now see final exam testing, the way that most people know it, as obsolete and less educational than other methods of ascertaining knowledge. Robert Bangert-Drowns, Dean of the School of Education at the University at Albany SUNY noted, “if you looked at a lot of final exams in courses you’d think, ‘This is not a very valuable standard.’ These tests ask the kind of questions [in detail] that students may never be asked again in their lives.”
Final exams force students to stress out over minutia in coursework that oftentimes are not relevant or significant to application of the material. In many cases, students may spend the whole exam reciting details from memory instead of practicing real-life application of that information.
Moreover, students who participated in a survey by the University of Arizona’s Thomas Fleming overwhelmingly agreed that final exams are less effective in reviewing coursework than simple weekly quizzes. In Fleming’s study, of 600 students, 78% of students responded that they learned more from weekly quizzes than two large exams.
Brett Bowers, principal of Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisconsin, has been an outspoken proponent of change to the traditional final exam format at the high school level. Actively encouraging teachers to explore other creative options for activities such as group projects, Bowers seeks to ensure that the best possible review methods are incorporated, not just arbitrary exams teachers use for the sake of tradition.
Bowers defended his stance in a letter to the community, stating, “It is hard for me to imagine… that the reason you spend 60 days in any course… was to fill in a Scantron sheet. I just cannot believe that that is why we designed any course we offer in this building… That is why you were here for 60 days of your life, for 73 minutes a day – do the math – over 4,300 minutes of time that you spent with this community of students, with this teacher. The purpose was to finish a Scantron successfully? That cannot possibly be the case.”
The administrator also commented that the current format offers little to no feedback, instead returning, “simply a number… That number means nothing, it is simply the number and the grade and the learning is irrelevant… it is not a part of the discussion.” From this point of view, it is easy to see why so many are calling for change.
The primary focus of any educational endeavor should be just that: to educate students. However, the current format requires students to undergo mind-numbing memorization exercises that often serve little to no educational value.
Although Bowers did clarify that, “what [the final exam] is, is less relevant to [him] than the process that goes into it,” it is clear that he believes exploration of other avenues of academic measurement can only help enhance a student’s grasp of taught material.
Finally, Bowers’ last point in his plea for change was perhaps the most crucial. Many high school communities feel pressure to keep the traditional format in the hopes that it will prepare students for college.
In an article first published on the Highlander Online, an anonymous Homestead High School student stated that she was in favor of the traditional format because, “the format of the 75 minute exam is the closest practice we will ever get to college midterms and exams.”
However, with Harvard moving away from the format, and other nationwide universities such as the University of Arizona also exploring changes, it is becoming increasingly likely that in the near future, students will be faced with a different approach to examination than the one currently used in most high schools.
Sit-down final exams have been deeply ingrained into the American educational experience; however, with students, educators, and even administrators on board with changing the protocol, perhaps it is time the nation took a closer look at the current system.