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Why do we need to have finals?

December is here already. Our weather is Minnesota Mean, our campus exudes Christmas spirit, and our students prepare for break. Of course, a fog hangs over campus: finals. Researchers have linked finals to amplifying stress, feelings of depression, even asthma. In the next few days, finals will strain students’ physical and emotional health. In this hazy week, it seems reasonable to ask: why do we even take final exams?

First, let’s ask professors. Unfortunately, their answer is a little thin. Professors Jeremy B. Williams and Amy Wong studied types of final exams. For much of their time, they write, access to college has been a privilege for the few, not the many. The past decade has bucked this trend.  Colleges and universities now accept and graduate more students from diverse backgrounds. In light of this shift, discussions of pedagogy, or teaching, have arisen. And yet, in preparation for their study, Williams and Wong could find no literature on final examinations. None. The practice has existed for centuries without hard justification. It’s easy to see why: academic historians are primarily concerned about colleges as institutions. Academic historians reflect on the Purpose of College and how Kids These Days challenge the Academy. Historians don’t concern themselves with teaching practices, even those as prominent as final exams.

Instead of professorial research on the matter, see what other students are saying about final exams. As surprises no one, I am not the first student to question the validity of finals. In a January 31, 1947 editorial, Concordian editor Rolf E. Aasen pondered the significance and purpose of final exams. I am enraptured with his piece, as many of his thoughts are equally valid today. “Foremost,” he writes, “is their value as an incentive, or more correctly, a compeller to study…except for an exceptional few, students left to their own resources do little. If it weren’t for the need to study for exams how much would the average college student learn?”

Aasen’s editorial continues by echoing the purpose of tests in general. Examinations of any type serve a twofold purpose. First, they serve to assess a student’s learning. Both students and instructors learn how students are faring in the course. We develop the second purpose by aggregating these student scores together. Here, we can see examinations as a measure of a professor’s teaching. For example, say all students in a class get the same exam question wrong. This could indicate that students were not prepared for the question.

Final examinations, then, gauge student learning and professor teaching. Colleges poise finals at the end of a course ostensibly to measure what a student has learned throughout the term. While often repeated, this justification works solely for cumulative finals: that is, finals that test over the whole course, not just the last few weeks. Furthermore, many courses do not assign tests: instead, we complete final papers or final projects at the end of a course.  Do these different forms of assessment matter? Evidence suggests they do.

If you’re interested in retaining what you learn in a course, you should hope for a cumulative final. Yes, they feel more challenging and require more preparation. Yes, the majority of us cram for these finals. Our studying may not be perfect, but studies show the information sticks around. In 2013, a team of psychology professors at Creighton University compared types of final exams across their department. They found that “[r]egardless of type of course, students with cumulative finals did better on departmental content tests than students in courses with noncumulative exams”  both immediately after finals and several weeks later. (p.108) For students who want to develop content competency or professors who want to boost information retention, cumulative finals are the way to go.

As we prep for finals, look on the bright side. Finals provide an incentive for us to brush up on the topics we learned this semester. Cumulative exams can help us develop better knowledge of our courses.  And test stress returns to normal soon after exam periods. Finals have their uses after all.

Let’s close with a limerick published in a 1921 issue of the Concordian, dedicated to professors before they administered final exams:

“There are grades that make me happy

There are grades that make me blue

There are grades that steal away the dark days

As the sunshine steals away the dew

There are grades that show I haven’t studied

That mine eyes, and mine alone may see

But the grades that make me feel like quitting.

Are the grades that you give to me.”

Good luck with exams, and enjoy break, everyone.

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