Column – Lower emphasis on finals shows education progress

October 26, 2010 — Leave a comment

Originally published in The Daily Toreador.

An article that appeared in The Boston Globe earlier this month titled “The test has been cancelled” looked into the decreasing usage – and indeed relevance – of classes having final exams at the end of the semester.

One big statistic they mention early on is that a mere 23 percent of Harvard classes last spring semester actually had final exams. This prompted the university to reverse their rules on the examination process – rather than informing the university when their class would not have a final, professors have to request permission to have a scheduled, seated exam.

This doesn’t really surprise me, and in fact I see it as a significant step forward. Most of the finals I’ve ever taken have come down to pure memorization of facts, usually by cramming a day or two before the final. This may not be different from a vast majority of college exams, but it’s a pain when a class is expected to have a final even if the structure of a class doesn’t benefit from it.

For example, I’m an English major and a philosophy minor. Generally speaking, neither of these course types lend themselves to typical sit-down exams. I’ve rarely had exams that are multiple-choice, saving me money on Scantrons but giving me more writer’s cramps due to Blue Book usage.

I’ve had more than one exam that tasked students with identifying the title, author and speaking characters in a given sample of text. Sure, doing so might prove that I read the books that were on the syllabus, but how can that skill help me really analyze the literature in question?

In philosophy in particular, how helpful is an exam to a student, really? I’ve had professors outright advise students to write a few short essays ahead of time, memorize them, then write them again in a Blue Book during the final. Where’s the benefit in that?

Personally, I’d rather write a 10-page essay on metaphysics due on the last day of class than write a few three-page essays that I have to write by hand in a three-hour final.

Similarly, I was thankful when my fellow honors astronomy students and I were tasked with doing a presentation rather than taking a final. While astronomy certainly contains enough facts and data to make exams possible, I felt I learned a lot more by doing a 15-minute presentation on dark matter than I would have by making sure I memorized the orbital period of Io for the three hours during the exam.

Granted, I wouldn’t say that finals should be tossed aside entirely. I think they can be useful in determining how much a beginner math student has learned during the semester, for example. It was also a good thing my Latin finals were never done at home, because it would have been far too easy for students to cheat with things like online translators.

Some professors at Tech still play by their own rules anyway. One of my professors this semester is rewarding near-perfect attendance with the option to skip the final, if desired. I intend to take full advantage of that offer.

But it’s important for professors to not be tied down by the traditional concept of a sit-down final exam. There are often better, more effective ways of judging a student’s performance and aptitude. We should perhaps encourage more creativity from professors when it comes to finals.

Britton Peele


Freelance video game critic for sites like GameSpot and GamesRadar. Amateur fantasy author.

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