Final Exam

School's OutSchool is out for the summer, marking the end of my sixteenth year of teaching undergraduates. Final exams have again been a painful reminder that many students do poorly simply because they lack proper study skills — something I will discuss in a future post — and because of the examination method itself.

At universities in the USA, final exams usually fall into the category of required “contact time” that students must have with instructors in the classroom. This requirement is bureaucratically mandated by accreditation bodies and government agencies, and it nonsensically equates time with learning — which B.F. Skinner identified as one of the dumber aspects of our education system about forty years ago. Given the explosion of online courses without any face-to-face interaction with an instructor, it’s time for this requirement to go away.

But let’s assume the requirement remains in place into the near future. In terms of closing the assessment loop and building a five-year plan for my teaching, am I satisfied with my final exams? Do they do what they are supposed to do — indicate student proficiency at the end of the semester? I’d say no. In all of my courses, I want students to demonstrate three things:

  • A good understanding of the arguments contained in the assigned readings.
  • An ability to synthesize information to produce their own evidence-based arguments.
  • The ability to effectively communicate these arguments.

Perhaps I have unrealistically high expectations of students, but I don’t think my final exams allow them to demonstrate any of these things as well as they should given the ill-formed explications that they write during a final exam period. Attention to detail, use of scholarly sources, and multiple revisions are important parts of the writing process, yet an exam that consists of an in-the-classroom essay writing exercise precludes these things.

For the fall semester, I’m planning on something different — take-home essay exams, perhaps distributed about a month before the semester ends so that students can revise their work if they choose. This sounds like the traditional research paper, but instead students will be tested on their use of the material assigned in the syllabus. Students in my courses already get frequent opportunities to practice writing arguments about what they read, so a take-home essay exam should hypothetically reflect what they’ve gained from these opportunities.

I’m thinking of having teams of students do presentations during the final exam period itself, since meeting in the classroom at this time is mandatory for campus courses. These presentations are much easier for me to evaluate at the end of the semester than a stack of handwritten essays. And because the presentations occur in a semi-public and competitive environment, they are a lot more authentic to students than sitting at a desk for two hours writing down whatever pops into their heads.