The Finals Feud

February 1, 2019

Pure exhaustion. Anxiety. Stress. Worry. Caffeine. Sleep-deprived brains. Study guides and notes galore. And test after test after test. The worst week(s) of the year, but you power through with the knowledge that if you just get through your finals you will be compensated with a much-needed break, whether it be Christmas or summer. We all hate them because of the stress and anxiety and exhaustion they cause, but what do finals really do to us? Are they truly intended to torture students, or are there real practical applications behind them?

Now I’m the first to say that I dread finals week, and I would be filled with pure joy if the school system removed midterms and finals from the curriculum, but recently I have experienced a change in heart.As I walked out of the classroom after my honors biology final (which I had probably studied at least 10-15 hours for), I paused to talk to a few of my classmates and my teacher, Mrs. Butterfield. I was exhausted from studying and testing, but I knew I had done well, and I was in a good mood, my brain full of thought, because of one of the questions on the test.

Of course, I will not reveal the content on the exam, but I will tell you that it made me reflect deeply on the purpose of finals, and my opinion has changed because of it. Mrs. Butterfield not only asked us to recall information about cellular respiration and DNA and lipids and all of the other material we covered during the semester, but she also prompted us to contemplate how all of the bits of information we learned in biology not only connected to each other but also, more importantly, how they pointed to the existence and role of our Creator.

“My goal was to stretch student thinking and for it to be a moment of ‘wow’ for my students, both to reminisce on how hard they have worked through each unit and on how perfectly our God designed life. I hoped this question would bring students both a sense of accomplishment as well as worship of our Maker,” said Mrs. Butterfield, eleventh grade biology teacher.

Mrs. Butterfield’s “capstone” question caused me to consider the importance of finals in addition to their clearly evident flaws. I believe most high school and college students would agree that many schools do not administer final exams in the most effective method. There is no doubt that finals cause stress, anxiety, mental health problems, and cramming, in addition to an overwhelming emphasis on the importance of a single grade.

“I think a big problem with finals is that you have a ton of big tests all at once, so you have to cram all the content into your brain and then you end up memorizing it and not understanding. I also think [one of] the negatives of finals is that you have to start studying early, but I found it hard to do this because of all my other homework,” said Kharis Perona, freshman.

The main reason behind the history of finals is to encourage students to remember all of the material from the whole semester, not just the most recent chapters, and to ensure they are adequately prepared for the next class or semester. Final exams are designed to be cumulative and to test students’ abilities to compile all of their knowledge and to understand the connections and broader application of the material to their lives.

In an article from The Washington Post, Jay Matthews, the education writer and columnist, supports this: “In my experience, exams motivate students to review what they have been taught, a key to the learning process.”

I’ll admit that if we did not have final exams, I would probably never look back at the material I learned in August or September, and therefore, I would miss the opportunity to view the connections and the true continuity between all of the separate units.

In an article from The Boston Globe, Keith O’Brien interviews Robert Bangert-Drowns, dean of the school of education at the University at Albany SUNY, and he states what his research on finals and their national decline revealed:

“There’s nothing magical about finals, Bangert-Drowns added. They can be arbitrary and abstract — an inauthentic gauge of what someone knows. Research, by Bangert-Drowns and others, shows that frequent testing is more beneficial. And yet, many still find value in the final exam. It might be stressful, even terrifying, but it has the singular power to force students to go back over material, think critically about what they have read, review hard-to-grasp-topics once more, and even talk about the subject matter with classmates and instructors — all of which enhance learning.”

In reality, it is difficult to deny this incredibly valid reason for the existence of finals. However, this in no way proves that any school, including Westminster, is executing finals in a healthy and beneficial way for both teachers and students.

Final exams, in both high schools and colleges across the United States, generally take place over a span of two weeks or less in December and May, and they usually mark the end of a class or a semester.

Depending on the class and the professor, high school finals are usually between 10 and 30 percent of the final class or semester grade, and this percentage often rises to 50 or even 75 percent in college. Regardless of the personality of a student, these high percentages are bound to cause stress, piling immense pressure on students and causing one grade to determine the success or failure of the student in a class.

“Finals can definitely be beneficial in that they require students to culminate their knowledge of that semester. On the topic of execution of finals, it seems that there’s not much you can do to relieve that final crunch stress, since all finals have to be taken at the same time. I know a friend whose school doesn’t require them to take finals unless they are below a B in the class.

I believe this may motivate students who don’t perform well in testing to do better on their school work so they can still get a good grade, but this might have the side effect of not properly preparing them for college testing,” said Vaughan Goff, sophomore.

As Goff mentioned, the other major flaw of final exams is the intense schedule, causing students to divide their focus and carefully manage their time because they have to study for four or five finals in just a few days. With such a short time period and exams in vastly different subject areas, students often struggle to do anything more than cram the necessary information.

Michael Baumann, a mid-level bureaucrat at one of Canada’s universities with a PhD from the University of British Columbia, offers a solution to this issue in an article in University Affairs: “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.”

Perhaps, as Baumann suggests, increasing the gaps between final exams or offering multiple exam dates would decrease some of the unavoidable stress of trying to study in such a short amount of time. Some universities and high schools are choosing to greatly minimize final exams or even eliminate them all together. This may prevent students from having a much-needed conclusion to the semester and from making those necessary connections in the material. But, there may be an alternative to traditional final exams that preserves the benefits of finals and attempts to avoid the negatives.
One of the problems with finals is that the format is rigid and intimidating, especially for students who simply do not test well. A possible resolution to this issue is offering multiple substitutes in lieu of a final exam, such as a final paper with a challenging prompt, a large final project, a socratic-style discussion, a class presentation, an independent study, or maybe even a personal conversation with the teacher or professor, depending on the course. This would allow students to choose a path that would best represent what they learned in the class and to still reflect on the continuity of the material, as well as discovering a way to relate the information to their personal lives.

In addition, stress would be greatly eliminated as students would have a greater chance to achieve success while still producing high quality work. If a student is particularly creative, he or she could choose to make a video as a cumulative capstone project for the class, while another student who excels in writing could opt for writing a paper. And people like me who are better at formal tests could still choose to take the final.

This solution certainly is not perfect, and it will likely never happen without extreme dedication from administrators, teachers, and students. So, what can students do in the meantime to increase their performance on finals and better the whole experience?

“I really stress that students need to learn as they go as opposed to study for a test. Obviously, reviewing material is necessary, but if students could spend their 50 minutes in class purposefully to learn those whole 50 minutes, and learn that material again when they go home that night, then there is very little studying that needs to occur for a unit test because they actively learned each day of the unit.

Then, when the time for the final exam comes, the material is already understood, it just needs to be refreshed. A big factor for this is self-awareness. Students need to be self-aware enough to know when they confidently understand something and when they are confused about something. Finals are a daunting task when you didn’t understand the material to begin with. This also means taking notes on what you didn’t understand to begin with. When a test is passed back, mark it up with the areas you were confused on and address them then so that you don’t have a pile of misunderstandings to address at the end of the semester. Lastly, students need to intentionally plan how they are going to spend their time, especially during the stressful time of finals, and if they actively plan, they can be more intentional about how much time they give to preparing for each test (and more intentional about getting good sleep),” said Mrs. Butterfield.

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