Final Exams May Be a Waste of Time

I graded final exams this week. Once again, I’m thinking it makes no sense to keep giving final exams. I haven’t had a long track record of teaching college students, but in courses I’ve taught thus far I haven’t been surprised by a student’s final grade — not once. Which leads me to believe I should save myself the time and effort of developing and grading the exams.

To be fair, due to my teaching methods, I have the advantage of gaining quite a bit of insight into the students and their capabilities and understanding as we progress through the semester.

I tell my students, learning is not a spectator sport. Participation is necessary. When everyone’s engaged, it makes sense there aren’t any surprises at the end.

Moreover, I have this thing with boredom. I loathe being bored. Similarly, I loathe the idea of being the cause of my students’ boredom. One of my responsibilities is to ensure they’re not bored.

If they’re bored, it’s reasonable to assume they’re not learning. And it’s certain I wouldn’t be enjoying the class. And if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it.

In our class, we discuss questions a lot. I question. They question. We wrestle with hard questions (and sometimes with easy ones that turn out to be hard). We identify and challenge assumptions, biases and preconceptions. We apply theory to practice. We question theory and explore the ways it may be wrong. We seek to understand.

I model how to approach and analyze problems and to develop solutions. We endeavor to learn how to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty, which isn’t always easy considering much of their prior schooling has dealt with firm answers and absolutes (an unrealistic and unhelpful approach in my judgment).

Consequently, by the time the final exam comes along, I know the grades my students are likely to have earned in the course. The final exam becomes redundant.

But I don’t do away with the exam because it keeps everyone honest, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Even the best of us may be tempted to skate without some system of accountability. The exam is an element of such a system.

Yet I’m still not sure final exams are either necessary or beneficial. Indeed, I’m not sure grades are necessary or a good idea.

I’m not sure our classes would be materially different if we ditched the exams and grades. I’m not sure the students would learn any more or any less.

We’d still have vibrant discussions. We’d still wrestle with important questions.

But I suspect the students would resist doing away with grades. It’s a way of establishing a pecking order. Of getting positive reward for their hard work. I was one of those students.

If you’re ever tempted to think school is about getting the best grades, Vera, pause and honestly reflect why you might be thinking that. In such reflection, I suspect you will learn much.

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