Thursday, December 28, 2006

Are Final Exams Meaningful?

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.


  1. This had been a long-standing debate at my former district, too. The wieght of the mid-terms and finals were a TOTAL of 1/7th of their final grade. That means that each test is worth 1/14th of their overall grade. Now, most subjects don't "cover" 14 chapters, so that means that a Chapter test is worth more than the mid-term and Final.

    Yet, if a student missed the day they were forced to take it the next day they returned to school.

    In a perfect world, aren't we teachers supposed to be "partners" in the education of our students? By that I mean that we take an interest in their education and we offer help and guidance where we see the need. We're NOT there to try to trip them up or put hurdles in their path. If that's true, then what is the purpose of the mid-term and final but to provide feedback to the students on their comprehension of the subject. And, we MUST go over that test afterwards if it's to be a learning experience and not just a gotcha.

    Perhaps if the mid-terms were more than just a huge multiple choice test that tests just their lower level thinking skills then maybe I'd have a better feeling for them.

    I hope to read other opinions. We're not the only ones struggling with this.

  2. Karl,
    In my perfect world, final exams would be a chance for a student to share something that they learned that truly engaged them in that particular subject. They would not be a rehashing of facts memorized (or not).
    As Jim says, educators are "NOT There to try to trip up" students. And yet, how often is that exactly what happens?
    Give students an opportunity to reflect back on the semester, reflect on their learning styles and the methods of the teacher and share what they TRULY learned!
    In my perfect world, this would be a reflection piece written on the computer with spell checking and synonym support and text-to-speech or speech recognition for those students who are struggling learners. Help them do their best with tools available to everyone!

  3. Karl,
    As the parent of an AHS student and BOE member, I've been wondering the same thing. If finals are opt-in due to a snowstorm, should they be opt-in all the time? Or - are finals in HS helpful to prepare students for finals in higher-ed?

  4. Personally, I think that the daily work and projects should be worth most of the grade. The fact that a fifth of my grade is decided by how well I do in an 85 minute test is a bit odd. What's worse is that we have four straight days of these finals. This is illogical for students and teachers alike. Because the week beforehand, the teachers are rushing to finish all the material that simply must be done before the finals. That same week the students are rushing to finish all the work the teachers pile on us to finish the semester, plus trying to study for the finals. Because of the kinds of things going on in that week, neither the students or the teachers are working at full potential. Students get tired and burnt out just when we need more energy than ever. And I can't even imagine all the extra work the teachers do.

    Really, I think it would be much more effective if teachers did the final review and maybe not the actual final. Because, it's true, we do forget a lot we learned during the semester, but should we really be punished for that? It's natural to forget unimportant details such as the ones commonly on the finals. Who here remembers a thing from their college geology course? I thought not.

    I can see the logic of having a final project or something real to demonstrate our learning, something more than a 200 question multiple choice. As long as all those projects for different classes aren't due in the same week, they could be really valuable. Because trust me, running on twelve hours of sleep for a week is not an easy way to get through finals. Why try to force 5 months of learning into 4 days?

  5. Renee (and everyone) - We've spent a lot of time in our staff development sessions talking about how we can make sure that we don't do a disservice to our students by ignoring the reality of what they'll be facing in higher education. While I think that traditional finals are still fairly prevalent in college, I suspect that they also will be moving toward more meaningful assessment.

    I also spend a lot of time (in my ivory office) arguing that decisions based only on "they'll need it for the next level" are not very good decisions. I'm not suggesting that we ignore the next level, just that we better have more behind our arguments than that. I also think that at some point one of the "levels" is going to have to break ranks and say "enough is enough, this isn't what's best for our students." Elementary teachers say, "But what about middle school?" Middle School teachers say, "But what about high school?" We say, "But what about college?" I'm sure college says, "But what about grad school? Or the business world?" But somebody has to change first . . .

    Having said that, I don't think that what I'm suggesting would be doing a disservice to our students in terms of preparing them for traditional final exams in college. If students are really learning in-depth, really engaged in meaningful exploration of the subject matter and are required to share, demonstrate and build on their knowledge - they will do just fine on a traditional final exam, probably better. I think that will help them much more than practicing cramming for a somewhat meaningless exam. What we would be asking them to do is actually much more difficult (or "rigorous" if you prefer) than studying for a traditional final where as soon as the final is done they are free to forget the material. We would be asking them to actually learn the material.

    As Molly indicates in her comment, final exams are a rather artificial process, not very representative of how students will be required to apply their knowledge in the so-called "real" world. (And made worse, of course, by teachers "rushing to finish all the material that simply must be done before the finals.") Yes, students will need to know content, how to apply it, and how to continually learn and re-learn, but I believe that looks very different than our current final exam process. The question remains as to how we would structure that so that all those demonstrations "aren't due in the same week" as Molly says. How can we give students the opportunity to demonstrate and build on their knowledge, teaching others along the way, in a meaningful, authentic way?

  6. Karl,

    Thanks for your response. I, too, think Finals should be a thing of the past, like typewriters. As Molly posted, "why be penalized for the minutia we didn't remember." It's like being tested over what we wrote on the grocery list - but left on the counter. We remember (usually) the stuff we really needed, and more importantly, know where to go to find out what we didn't know for the test/shopping expedition.

    You posted a great question for discussion. We had the discussion about finals in our own household (HS student, 2 college students, plus parents). After we talked about finals at college - we all decided that wasn't a good enough reason for finals.

    So much of public education is based upon the past...very frustrating. Right now we have review committees that select textbooks for classes, that are then "Board approved." Making the shift to using information and assignments shared by folks in the "almost underground world of the internet" - well, talk about local control getting just about as local as it can get! And this, makes the public (read this as taxpayers) uncomfortable.

    Thanks Karl & Co. You help push forward the critical thinking needed to create our and our kids futures.

  7. Dr. Douglas Reeves might be asking the same question about final exams. I believe Alfie would too.

    Final exams are usually very unlike real world experiences. My father is a machinist and he does not get evaluated on his content knowledge of machining, but on the final product. Does the part he made match the specs of the buyer? If it doesn't, my dad fails. If it does, my dad sticks around for another chance.

    We must move our students beyond the walls of the classroom and allow them to use all of the resources they can locate to help solve problems. Let's shake it up and give our students permission to learn in an authentic environment or project.