Why Final Exams?

As I wade through stacks of essays, I am once again confronted by the question of “why give a final exam?”

Final exams are assumed to accomplish two things: (1) provide one last testing environment that will help students transfer information from short term to long term memory, and (2) comprehensively demonstrate, via synthesis or application of ideas, what students have learned over the duration of the course.

I wondered what evidence exists in support of these two assumptions, started poking around, and came across an interesting study by Mark B. Freilich, a chemistry instructor, published in 1989.* Over several semesters, he split students in a general chemistry course into three groups. One group took weekly quizzes for credit during the first half of the semester, a second group had the option of taking the quizzes, but they did not count toward the course grade, and the third group did not have the opportunity to take the quizzes.

The analysis of the data revealed that students who took the quizzes on average scored better on the third regular exam in the course, suggesting that the quizzes caused them to be more engaged with course content over the entire semester. But there was no significant variation between the final exam scores of the three groups.

“[T]he lack of any real difference between experimental groups allows for one of two conclusions: (1) the extra discipline and guidance offered by the weekly quizzes was ineffective either because the course contained sufficient testing situations without the additional quizzes or the students were sufficiently motivated by other factors or (2) most of the students, particularly those who did not take the quizzes. were able to study and cram to the level demanded by the final examination and, by extension, are able to do the same for final exams in other courses. This would defeat a major purpose for giving a comprehensive final exam” (p. 222).

Freilich surmised that college students “are sufficiently adept at test taking that they can study to the level of a final exam, even if that final covers the material for an entire semester in which each week builds upon the prior week(s)” and that “a final exam grade may imply more about what is remembered for the short term than what is actually learned” (p. 223).

*Mark B. Freilich, “Frequent quizzing, the final exam, and learning: is there a correlation?”  Journal of Chemical Education, March 1989, Volume 66, p. 219-223.