Two weeks ago, I saw Colman McCarthy interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning. He is an incredible person who has dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of peace. He is now a high school teacher, teaching a class on peace. We all can learn so much from Colman McCarthy, but there was one thing said by one of his students interviewed that particularly stuck out to me as we enter finals week. When asked if their class had grades, his student said, “He considers grades academic violence.”
Now, that might be a little extreme, but it did get me thinking. Is the majority of your grade in a class being based on one test encompassing a semester’s worth of information really that fair? As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one asking that question. There are lots of people who think final exams hurt students more than they help them.
In the article Six Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Have Finals Exams by Andi Fox, Fox points out that typically, a student who has been getting As or Bs the entire year will perform well on the final exam. At the same time, if a student has been getting low scores in the class, they probably won’t do too well on the final. So, what does that tell us about students and their abilities? Well, first it tells us that students who didn’t learn information the first time around can’t then learn a year’s worth of work to cram for a final. It also tells us that finals don’t act as any sort of source of new information for teachers and professors. If a student is continuously doing poorly and then they do poorly on the final, what perspective has that professor gained about that student other than they didn’t learn anything in the class?
The Colonel News argues that final exams keep students emotionally invested in the class right up until the last day. Finals help diminish “senioritis” at the end of semesters by keeping students engaged. Additionally, final exams help ensure that students remember the information taught to them in the class well into the future. They force students to revisit the information from the beginning of the class that may have been forgotten. Alex Houdeshell with The Colonel News writes, “Accounting Professor Joe Hoyle of Richmond, Virginia has his own procedure for selecting questions. ‘I line up all the topics for the entire semester on a sheet of paper and pick one pretty much at random,’ Hoyle said. ‘I then ask myself—if one of my students is at a job in six-months and this topic is raised, what should I expect an A student to be able to remember after five minutes of review?’ This method ensures the questions asked are relevant, and the degree of intensity is reasonable. The material on finals should be material that is useful and will be needed.” This is a great method for checking up on your students to make sure they are retaining information, but I would argue that there is a better way of applying this method than on a final exam.
Montgomery County, Maryland recognized the flaws in the traditional midterm and final system, and so they decided to change it. Now, instead of a final, students have assessments periodically throughout the quarters. These assessments aren’t always multiple-choice tests either. The assessments can be projects, labs, essays or portfolios of work. An article written in the Washington Post about the switch describes how the school district saw that students were struggling to score well on final exams, so they decided to pivot to a new form of testing that would better suit student’s learning styles and allow for more instructional time.
This an example of what a county did to help students in K-12, but the same problem solving should be applied in college. Periodic application of knowledge checks to not only see if students can regurgitate the information they were taught but also to see if students can use their knowledge in “real world” situations. This is especially important in college as students are that much closer to being in the real world, and much of the information they are being taught in their classes is job-specific.
Finals are the roughest part of the semester for most students. They are stressful and are usually accompanied by prioritizing studying over sleeping and eating. I think it’s important to recognize the differences between “senioritis” and burnout. A differentiation that I believe is at the core of Colman McCarthy’s stance on grades as academic violence. If a grade destroys a student’s health and wellbeing, it’s not the right avenue for testing academic retention. Final exams don’t prove anything we didn’t already know, and they teach students to undermine mental and physical health. After a semester of hard work, maybe we should be looking for better ways to test student’s grasp of the course than a heavily weighted cumulative exam.