Skip navigation
IN MY OPINION

We need to seriously rethink the concept of final exams

Why don’t more students protest against this most universally distressing ritual of university life?

By MICHAEL BAUMANN | OCT 17 2017

Before I came to Canada in 1993 to earn my PhD at the University of British Columbia, I had never even heard of the concept of “cramming.” I had spent eight years at the University of Vienna, had completed 52 courses, had researched and written a master’s thesis, and yet had never prepared for an exam by hurriedly ingesting large amounts of information that would be frantically regurgitated at exam time. Nor did I know anyone who did. (To be fair, I am a classically trained zoologist, and I know nobody who studied zoology and was not interested in it. We were lucky.)

In Canada, it didn’t take me long to find potential causes for this misguided habit in university students: constant low-value busywork that doesn’t leave time for thinking, let alone an appreciation for thinking; constant micro-testing that gives the impression that every substantial portion of understanding can be hacked into a minimum testable bit; an obsession with marks that places what is regurgitated above what is digested; and, of course, exam scheduling.

There are 12 months in a year and yet in each semester the final exams of all university courses are scheduled in a two-week window as early as two days after the last day of class. As a consequence, students experience:

  • Scheduling conflicts with other exams
  • High levels of stress and anxiety, increasing demand for counselling services and prescription drugs
  • Confusion, increasing demand for faculty office hours, remedial services and tutoring sessions
  • Cramming sessions and all-nighters, increasing demand for prescription and illegal drugs that boost concentration and stamina
  • Content ingestion, regurgitation, and forgetting, rather than building understanding
  • Intellectual disengagement during the downtime after exam periods
  • Frustration when forced to repeat a failed course, increasing demand for extra sections and/or the length of wait lists

This raises for me three mysteries. First, why are final exams scheduled that way? Certainly not to help students excel in their academic studies, nor to minimize stress and anxiety, and certainly not because professors enjoy spending days on end marking piles of exam papers. Why then?

Second, why do universities spend extraordinary resources on managing student mental health (e.g. mental health task forces, campaigns, counsellors, comfort dogs), yet fail to see final exam scheduling as a major cause for student mental health problems?

And third, why do students not protest en masse against this asinine practice of final exam scheduling? If students were as serious about their education as they are about more social demands, it is conceivable that administrators would move quickly on this most universally distressing ritual in university life.

As a first and embarrassingly small step towards a sensible testing system, I suggest that university administrations offer at least two final exam dates for each course (e.g. one at the end of the semester and one at the beginning of the next). Of course, the first and second (and subsequent) tests would need to be different from each other. Having multiple dates should ease if not end many of the negative effects of the current system as listed above.

Remember that the proximate goal of education is knowledge retention and knowledge transfer. That is what we want to test in a way that is valid, reliable and standardized. Nowhere is there an intrinsic necessity that knowledge acquisition and testing must be closely sequentially coupled. Dates mean nothing. This is not a radical model; it is routine practice at many European universities.

It is time for Canadian universities to remove institutional crutches and barriers that stand in the way of academic and postgraduate excellence. There are many more to clear, but final exam scheduling is an easy one.

Michael Baumann is a mid-level bureaucrat at one of Canada’s universities.

COMMENTS
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Philip Hultin / October 18, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    The title of the article is perhaps misleading. Michael Baumann is criticizing the IMPLEMENTATION of final exams, not the CONCEPT of final exams.

    I agree that there are big issues about how we deliver both education and testing at Canadian universities. For one thing, the typical 2-semester/10 course academic year is counterproductive in my view – and students seem to agree since very few students at my institution actually carry this nominal load. As an undergraduate myself once upon a time, at an Ivy League institution, we used a quarter system with a nominal load of 3 courses in each of 3 10-week terms. The pace was fairly quick, to be sure, but it was much easier to balance the demands of 3 courses even when they had weekly labs (as most of mine did).

    And, it is true that unfortunately many colleagues find it necessary to make tests and exams that are built around memorization and regurgitation simply to handle the number of students they are expected to evaluate. I believe that I am lucky to be able to test higher-order problem solving skills even for classes of over 250 students, because of the nature of my subject (Organic Chemistry). But the pressure to always “do more with less” is definitely working against educational quality and I can see little hope for positive change in the near future.

  2. Amin Haghnegahdar / October 18, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Very nice article!
    Similar helpful ideas and suggestions can be found in the article below:

    Haghnegahdar, Amin (2013) “Alternatives to Heavily-Weighted Final Exams in Engineering Courses,” Teaching Innovation Projects: Vol. 3 : Iss. 1 , Article 2.
    Available at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/tips/vol3/iss1/2

  3. James Shute / October 18, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    Michael Baumann is spot on. Traditional exams are largely passé. There are so many other options for testing knowledge. And cultivating knowledge, recognizing individual variation in learning, is a far more valid objective than testing. I hope his piece is widely read.

  4. Emma / October 21, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    I agree with many of the points made against using final exams to evaluate students, and was looking forward to the author describing another system that was fair, effective, and practical, but associated with much less stress (for both students and instructors). Not necessarily an easy task, especially within the context 200-300 student courses with minimal grading support, and given the accessibility of digital resources (and temptation of cheating) for students these days. …Perhaps it might even be possible to rethink the entire concept of assignment grades in undergraduate courses, and move to a pass-fail model??

    I was disappointed (and confused) to upon reaching the end of the article to discover that the proposed solution was doubling the number of exam periods (one at the end of the semester, plus another at the beginning of the next semester), doubling the amount of work instructors would need to put into writing novel, effective, yet practical-to-grade exam questions, and creating even more scheduling issues for students, instructors, and TAs (and administrators).

    I’ve taught courses where final exams had to be rescheduled for the beginning of the following semester, and it was a nightmare. It definitely increased student stress; rather than being able to relax and take a real mental vacation during the between-semester break, they had an upcoming final exam looming over them the whole time. Additionally, scheduling a final exam at the beginning of the semester meant students had to juggle beginning new courses (along with potential other stresses and upheavals associated with the start of term) alongside preparing to write a final exam. Because it was the beginning of the semester (and classes had started) the final exam needed to be scheduled on a weekend. This created scheduling conflicts for some students, and took away weekend time that they might have been using for leisure and extracurricular activities, to catch up on personal or academic projects, or simply to catch up on sleep. Most of the negative impacts listed above for students were equally true for instructors as well as for students.

  5. Stewart Rood / October 22, 2017 at 10:02 am

    I support a few views and disagree with others. Relative to the ’embarrassingly small step’ of an optional delay and second exam date, there are a number of conceptual and practical problems. For the students, and the instructors, the final exam commonly provides course completion and subsequently, closure. I’m not enthusiastic about delaying the completion of the grading and the course, and the subsequent delays in the submission of grades will challenge aspects such as course advancement and program completion (etc.).

« »
--ph--