Final exams fail as a true test of learning

Katie Paape, News Editor

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Piles of papers scatter the floor, stacks of study guides are stationed in spontaneous areas of the room, and coffee cups float throughout the space like miracle workers in the presence of an academic nightmare. It’s finals week. Anxiety is in the air. 

Most students must learn a new schedule for the last week of the semester as some finals exceed the length of the regular class period. It may be one of the worst weeks of the year for many college students in America, but for as widespread as finals are, are they accomplishing their goal of helping students in higher education?

Many of us are still recovering from finals in December, so perhaps now is a good time to look back and analyze their purpose and function in college life. While finals have a reputation of being disliked for a variety of reasons, here are three justifiable arguments against having a cumulative test at the end of the semester:

Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is a problem faced by many college students. As the test is being passed out, your heart races, your hands begin to shake, and your mind goes blank the moment you receive the dreaded exam. To make matters worse, the final exam score often makes up half of the entire course grade. This causes even more anxiety, and studies have shown that high levels of anxiety reduce learning and memory. Essentially, the exam that is supposed to increase learning is actually causing nervous students to remember less. 

Useless Memorization 

Students who are lucky enough to avoid test anxiety still don’t benefit from final exams. If you are like most college students, you probably know what it’s like to cram a massive amount of information the night before exam day, but how much of this information do we remember just a week after the exams? We can memorize facts and formulas to pass our courses, but memorization without application does not contribute to overall acquired knowledge.

We Can’t Learn from Our Mistakes

Other than the final grade, most students never see the results of their finals, so they cannot learn from their errors and correct them. If you ask most successful people, they will tell you they learned far more from their mistakes than from their achievements. If students are denied the opportunity to see their final exam, they are denied the opportunity to learn and fix their mistakes.

To be fair, teachers who give final exams believe this is the opportunity for students to review the course material and to see what has made its way into their long-term memory. However, the way final exams are organized does not encourage long-term retention of information.

We all know that distributed practice over a period of time is most conducive for learning, yet college institutions do not structure their courses based on this guiding principle. 

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the highest form of cognition is connecting new knowledge with old knowledge to create an original idea. Final exams typically don’t require students to explain what they have learned, they simply expect students to recite specific facts. Without application, everything we’ve just crammed for will be forgotten.

While college students’ reputation of procrastination could be to blame, in most cases, students are doing their best to keep up with homework and studying for each test as they come up in their schedule. Students with a fast approaching math exam are not likely thinking about the history final coming up in a couple of months. In addition, students must learn how to balance work, school, and a healthy lifestyle while being suddenly thrust into adulthood. In this state of constantly putting out fires, it is no wonder students find themselves cramming for finals year after year.

At this point, you might ask yourself what should replace the final exam. Some professors have proposed students work on projects that require the use of the course material that applies to real life situations, ideally relevant to the major of the individual.

For the information that must be memorized, studies find that frequent short quizzes force students to review information at regular intervals, which aligns with the theory of distributed practice over time.

Though final exams continue to be an issue in schools around the world, many institutions are beginning to reduce the weight final exams have on the final grade. According to Harvard Magazine, only 259 of the 1,137 courses at Harvard held final exams in 2010. Here at Madison College, many professors are replacing final exams with final projects and term papers. With enough conversation, we may increase the relevancy of general education courses and improve the quality of higher education across America and throughout the world.