Because of the blizzard we had on December 20th, school was called off for the last two days of school in my district before winter break. In my building, the second day was an in-service/work day, but the first day was our last day of final exams. Students could have had anywhere from zero to three final exams that day, with most students probably having one or two. My school has decided to make those finals "opt-in" for students, meaning they can simply use the grade they had going into finals as their semester grade, or can choose to take the final the first week we're back in January.
Let me preface the rest of this by saying that I'm not disagreeing with the decision to make those finals opt-in. Given the circumstances, that probably is the best way to handle it. But it does make me think a little bit about the final exam process in general. In my perfect, utopian world, the final would be an integral part of the course, a chance for students to demonstrate all that they had learned in the course. A chance not only for them to "prove" what they know, but to also share that knowledge with others to help them learn (whether that's with other students, their teacher, or others around the world). In that world, it would be unthinkable to cancel any finals due to weather because that would be invalidating all the work that had already taken place in the course.
So, that makes me think about our current final exams and whether they are about learning, or more about the grade. I think at this point, they are mostly about the grade, and I think that's a bad thing. It's another hoop to jump through, another stick we use to coerce them to learn something that they don't find meaningful just to get the carrot of the grade (and then many promptly forget it when the exam is over). How many of us - teachers and students alike - actually use the results of the final exam in any meaningful way to further our students' learning? I would like to see our final exams - and my definition of "exam" would be fairly broad - be much more meaningful for students, much more of a culmination/demonstration of their learning process in the course, as well as a starting point for further learning (for themselves and for others). I'm not sure exactly what that would look like in my building, but I'm pretty sure it would look very different than four consecutive days of three 85-minute exams.
As always, my thoughts are a work in progress. I would love to hear your ideas - whether you disagree and think our finals are meaningful, or whether you have ideas of how to structure more meaningful "finals."
Image Citation: Exams to grade, originally uploaded by Chris Lawrence.