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Final Exams: Finally Becoming Obsolete?

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Depending on where you go to college, your field of study, and the preference of your professors, finals week can be either pure torture or just a jumpstart on your winter vacation.

Most schools still hold an exam week to signal the official end of the semester, but final exams aren’t as prominent as they were in the past. Why? Even though many colleges still require final exams for each course, more and more professors are choosing not to give them.

Final Exams are Declining—Even at Harvard

The Boston Globe ran an article about the decline of the final exam back in October, and it sparked plenty of online debate on the topic. The article explained that the “exam-less” trend is being seen anywhere and everywhere: only 259 of 1,137 Harvard undergraduate courses scheduled final exams last spring, the lowest number since 2002.

Some Professors are Pro-Final Exam

Dr. Thomas R. Browne, a retired professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, wrote to the newspaper to offer his opinions on the situation: “Final exams are part of the real world. Many medical schools heavily depend on final exams for student evaluation. At some law schools the entire grade for a course is determined by the final exam. The student entering postgraduate education without skills in taking final exams is at a significant disadvantage.”

In an Inside Higher Ed article, fine arts professor Laurie Fendrich explains that she still gives written exams to her beginning students because students that are not-so-talented artists deserve a chance to demonstrate an understanding of the elements of painting and drawing. Likewise, she doesn’t want incredibly talented students who don’t understand the basics to slip through the cracks.

Dan Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, also believes in final exams and doesn’t appreciate it when students complain that his courses still require finals while their others do not. … which may be why his New York Times blog featured a few rants about the topic, including “Apparently this is fairly common in some departments, but I am outraged — what a pathetically lazy bunch of faculty!” and “Worse still, their malfeasance imposes a negative externality on me.”

Adjuncts Often Skip Finals

Finals week usually follows a unique schedule to provide longer meeting times for each class. It’s not uncommon for adjunct professors to teach at several different colleges in the area, and should exam week fall on the same week at two of their schools, they may decide to skip the tests altogether and avoid schedule conflicts.

Final Exams: Both Sides of the Story

Final exams once served as a final evaluation of the topics covered throughout the semester and acted as an assessment of students’ knowledge of the subject, but some courses are so unique there’s no exam needed. (During my required internship, I was evaluated throughout the semester but I didn’t have to take a big test at the end.)

I finished college eight years ago and I’ve taken a few different classes since my graduation. I’ve taken classes both online and on-campus with adjuncts and tenured professors. Several of my classes included final exams that recapped the entire semester, but others required lengthy term papers or incredibly involved projects as opposed to one big test. A few of my professors gave exams during finals week, but the tests were simply the last test of the term—they only covered material learned since the previous test had been given. Some professors gave no final exam at all and I didn’t have to show up for their class during finals week.

Research performed by Robert Bangert-Drowns—the dean of the school of education at the University at Albany SUNY—and other educators shows that frequent testing may be more beneficial than an all-inclusive final exam at the end of the term.

“You can interpret this in two ways,” Bangert-Drowns was quoted in the New York Times. “One way is, institutions for higher education are abdicating their responsibility for having high standards and demanding high performance from their students. But on the other hand, if you looked at a lot of final exams in courses you’d think, ‘This is not a very valuable standard.’ These tests ask the kind of questions that students may never be asked again in their lives, in detail that they may never be asked again in their lives.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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