Finals Should Not Be the Final Answer

Should final exams be the final say when determining your grade? Teachers rely on them as a way to determine if students actually learned anything in the class and, for the most part (apart from midterms), as the only objective way to reward students for paying attention and participating in class. But what about the times when students understand the material, pay attention and even enjoy the class, but run into trouble on the final exam?

Many classes have a final essay or project in place of the traditional final exam, or have no tests at all and rely solely on projects and essays – this is definitely the way to go. Forget multiple-choice exams – their random results and lack of objectivity are not good indicators of having really understood the material. Essays allow students to express in their own words how the concepts the professors have presented come together. They require a closer look and careful reading to be graded, and students that make connections well and can clearly demonstrate their knowledge will (ideally) get the best grades. But many final exams are already essays – just in a timed format. That limited time feature will only add pressure and inevitably lead to careless mistakes that do not give the grader a clear impression of the student’s actual knowledge.

I can personally vouch for this model of grading. I have begun to lose count of how many essays I have written in place of midterms or finals where I was either very confident and able to demonstrate my mastery over the material or was less than pleased with my work but able to rely on how well I wrote it, how I put it together, or how closely I followed the prompt in place of necessarily answering the question right on the mark. In timed exam settings that involved essays, I felt rushed and unable to draw on basic facts or my own carefully recorded notes to help me craft a better essay. In exams where multiple-choice questions were involved, I knew the answer, was able to figure it out by process of elimination or had to guess. That uncertainty is no way to fairly assess a student’s experience in the class.

Then there are basic logistics. Sit-down timed finals take two hours and typically take place either before your usual class time or after. This may not be an inconvenience to students depending on the time (no one likes waking up earlier than usual for that morning class that was already bad enough to begin with). Take-home essays obviously allow the use of notes and class materials, but they also allow students to craft the perfect final exam response on their own time. Students that wait until the last minute will get the grades they deserve, but when all students are placed in the same place and given the same amount of time, they may not be able to perform at their best.

Finals should be about assessing a student’s actual ability and allowing them to demonstrate that they have learned something and are capable of proving they have a grasp on the material. Limiting their time and forcing them to use alternative techniques to succeed (including the classic tool of memorization) will not give fair, accurate measures of student success in the classroom. For that reason, I feel it would be best if we gradually rely less on the traditional final exam and expand the use of take-home essays and other projects that force students to bring their best to the task and rely on their understanding more than their memory.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.