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Final exams may easily be the most stressful aspect of school for college students. For some of us, final exams mean a final chance to boost our grade in a certain class. Or, if you’re like me, final exams can mean a final chance to ruin your grade in a certain class.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to the extreme stress final exams place upon students, let alone the stress of final exams during a global pandemic. It seems to be a universal understanding that final exams are stressful and demanding, so why do we continue to apply this pressure to students every year? What might the pros of final exams be and do those pros outweigh the cons?   

The History of Exams

The concept of exams was originally invented in Ancient China by the Sui Dynasty. The Sui Dynasty created the Imperial Examination System in 605 AD in order to recruit candidates for certain government positions. We commonly attribute the invention of exams to Henry Fischel, an American businessman and philanthropist from the 19th century.

A man with the same name, Henry Fischel, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University during the early 20th century, can be attributed to the invention of the standardized assessment as it has been applied to American colleges. He believed that there should be a way to evaluate his students' studying abilities from the entire year. With that came the process of evaluating students at the end of each year or semester to both test their overall understanding of the class and to test the effectiveness of the education program itself. 

Pros of Final Exams

It is hard to begin to describe what could be a pro of final exams, especially as a student currently drowning in the anxiety brought about by finals week. Objectively, final exams have a variety of benefits, one being that they provide one final opportunity to raise your overall grade.

If you have a borderline grade that could be swayed higher by the final exam, such as a 79%, 69% or 89%. Likewise, some teachers may include extra credit questions or opportunities within their final exams that could boost your exam and overall grade.

Another pro of final exams is that they ensure you retain information from the entire course. Hopefully, your goal when taking the classes you take is to learn something from them. Final exams ensure an opportunity to take another overall look at all the material you have learned in that course. This could ultimately prepare you for future courses and future jobs, especially those that correlate to your specific major or career path.   

It is important to examine the benefits final exams have for the education system as a whole. Final exams may have more pros for the teachers and the education system than they have for students themselves. Final exams are a great way to assess the overall learning done in the course. Schools can better understand if their provided class actually benefited its students.

They may also use final exams to evaluate their teachers and the actual impact they have on increasing a student’s learning in a given subject. Additionally, final exams allow professors to gauge the quality of their course syllabus and teaching style for future classes. 

Cons of Final Exams

The use of final exams has been widely debated, primarily if the stress and overall anxiety they cause students is worth the pros they provide schools in terms of evaluating courses. That being said, there are several cons to final exams. The first being obvious; finals put extreme pressure on students.

Sophomore Haley Caldwell, a VCU student studying Health Physical Exercise Science, says, “They give me panic attacks and overwhelm me at the end of already stressful semesters.” The majority of final exams assess course material from the entire semester, meaning that after taking in up to four months of material and information, you are expected to regurgitate facts from week one of classes. Most of the time, this information is not general to your understanding of the class materials; it is specific to what a professor may have said one time over the span of months. This doesn’t necessarily actually assess your knowledge on a specific subject.

Luckily, for this reason, many teachers will give you a study guide or list of terms and units to study that will be on the exam. Unfortunately, study guides for final exams, though helpful, are also usually hundreds of questions long and usually increase the stress students already feel. Final exams can seriously damage mental health and aren’t necessarily inclusive to students with mental illness or learning disabilities.

Another large problem with final exams is that if they count for the largest portion of your grade meaning you can do very well in a class and understand it fine, but still end up failing or getting a bad grade in a class just because of one test. This adds to the pressure students feel when preparing for the exams because one day can ruin months of work. Additionally, exams do not necessarily determine if you understand the subject; they just determine if you’re a good test taker.

For people who aren’t good test-takers, like me, it can be extremely discouraging. Measuring people’s intelligence cannot be done through a scantron or one test. Especially those who take longer times to understand information or people who work tirelessly on every assignment, paper or quiz, just to then take one final test that is supposed to outweigh or overshadow all the other months of work. Why should one test matter more than all the effort you put in for months? 

Changes to be Done

Final exams have their pros and cons. I do not believe the pros of final examinations outweigh the cons. Instead, I believe serious change needs to be done when it comes to how we chose to evaluate students. Through this pandemic, teachers have had limited ways to administer traditional final exams.

Some professors have chosen to make final exams optional to you, have removed them all together or have chosen final projects in lieu of an exam. Changes need to last far beyond accommodations for this specific year. Ideally, final exams should become optional.

Taking a final exam should be up to a student if they feel they need another grade. Final exams should not require students to memorize equations they would never otherwise have to memorize or specific lectures from months prior. Rather, finals week should be a celebration of the students’ accomplishments and their hard work over the course of the semester.

We should be encouraging education and growth among individuals, not destroying self-confidence. It takes dedication, commitment and strength to be a student. Final exams cause unnecessary anxiety and pressure on individuals already under extreme anxiety and pressure.   

I'm Julia. I am a sophomore journalism major at VCU. I love film, tv, and writing, and I tend to love writing about film and tv!
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