Why do you take the classes you do? Some may just be unrelated gen-eds, some may be somewhat linked courses for a minor, but the lion’s share should be towards a major. The plans of study given for students for their majors are meant to be a guide through the courses, with prerequisites holding key ideas that would be used in later, upper courses. Why, then, do the structure of final exams run so contrary to this flow of courses?
Many classes are meant to move directly from one to the next. Most students know this in the form of classes like Calculus I and II, where material from the first is directly applicable to the second. Engineering students are also used to this; the mechanical engineering plan of study is a web of interrelated courses, necessitating a very strict schedule.
More generally, the progression of courses also holds. Of course, the reason any course should be taken is because of a belief that the material or skills gained through it will be useful later on. Why would students be paying thousands of dollars on their education if they didn’t intend to use it? So, everything in the course should be clear to the student, as any and every piece of information learned may be useful at some point in the future.
Final exams, though, support the exact opposite result. Of course, it is possible for students to come back and get their exams after the class is over; the registrar’s office requires that professors hold onto them. Personally, though, I have not once heard of a student taking advantage of this, and I have doubts that many people even know this. For the most part, final exams are taken, graded, and accepted as fact.
This doesn’t sit well with me, though. While professors and administration have varying opinions on the point of exams, I believe that their use as a benchmark of student progress implies that they should be used as a learning experience as well. Students should be able to use exams as reminders of any gaps in their knowledge. This way, they can use exams to fill in such gaps.
Midterm exams can work this way. Especially for classes that are cumulative, the material within doesn’t go away or become irrelevant. So, if I get something wrong on a midterm, I can reinforce that knowledge so that I do better in the future. This cannot be done as easily for final exams, though. After the final, it is harder to get in touch with the professor, review course material, or even get the exam itself back.
Some would claim that this is because the final exam is as the name suggests: the end of the class, the end of the material, and the end of the need to memorize the information. In all fairness, this is how the system works out. People cram for the weeks preceding finals week and move on to break. This process is popular, but I would argue that it goes against the point made earlier on why we even have class progression and classes in general. The conclusion of classes should not be seen as a conclusion of the material, but the obfuscation around final exams supports exactly this.
There is also the matter of fact-checking. As accomplished and experienced as they are, professors (and especially non-professor graders) are not infallible. They do make mistakes. Many times, either by stepping up myself or through the professor’s own volition, my grade on regular exams have been corrected. This is not the case for final exams. There is no error correction. A curve attempts to counteract this, but I have my own personal disagreements with those.
With final exams necessarily having to test the final things learned in class, what can be done about this system that I obviously find to be broken? While I think that more structural and cultural changes to how we view and assess education is not a terrible idea, there are smaller adjustments that could still help. Namely, don’t make receiving final exams an opt-in process! Mail them to students, scan them and send them electronically, do something that makes it clear to people what they did right or wrong. I am not just going to college for a series of studying exercises, but finals season fails at supporting anything but that.
Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.