Reassessing exams

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As always, dead week promises to live up to its ominous name. With classes drawing to a close and finals swiftly approaching, students ready themselves for caffeine-fueled nights at the library, sealing themselves and their laptops inside veritable walls of books. At this point in the semester, desperate students would be apt to hail any professor advocating the abolition of final exams as the messiah of pedagogy, but the University of North Florida’s David Jaffee even has a scientifically valid argument underlying his criticism of exams.

Jaffee said in a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education that the final exam system “encourages student behaviors and dispositions that work against the larger purpose of human intellectual development and learning.”

He backs up this assertion with research literature on the human learning process and anecdotal evidence on the benefits of alternative assessment styles. Traditional cumulative exams, says Jaffee, encourage short-term memorization but discourage long-term learning.

Worst of all, the final exam system propagates the reviled (among academics, at least) philosophy of instrumentalism. When students view each test or course as nothing more than a required step toward their real goals, they lose sight of the importance of learning for its own sake. Jaffee sees hypocrisy in professors’ urging their students to appreciate the intrinsic value of knowledge one moment and cautioning them about cumulative finals the next.

Jaffee’s argument is neither original nor erroneous. Students and academics alike have bemoaned the final exam system — albeit for different reasons — since time immemorial. Any student can attest that short-term cramming produces little in the way of knowledge retention or applicable skills. The courses we enjoy the most are generally not those in the “requirements” boxes on our degree plans; only our favorite subjects can truly get us excited about learning and retaining knowledge that we hope to use in our future careers.

Unfortunately, final exams remain the most realistic option for student evaluation, at least in introductory-level courses. Ungraded exams would only encourage academic slacking, and coordinating applied finals in real-world settings would prove prohibitively expensive.

Still, although only a small fraction of the 500 students in an introductory biology or psychology lecture may plan to pursue a career in the field, professors can pique their students’ interest and decrease their stress level by asking practical questions that require knowledge of major ideas but not of minute details. For example, questions that force students to adopt the role of a professional in a particular field and think about how best to respond to a situation not only encourage creative thinking but also expose students to the interesting, applied aspects of a subject.

Of course, professors in upper-division or major-specific courses have more room for innovation. When students are genuinely interested in a course and demonstrate that enthusiasm through high-quality work and participation, a full-fledged final may prove unnecessary. Professors can capitalize on students’ investment in the subject by experimenting with alternative forms of evaluation such as group problem-solving or one-on-one interview exams.

Whichever methods prove most effective, there certainly remains room to diversify the traditional cumulative exam format. Jaffee’s one-sided criticism of the final exam, however, neglects universities’ needs for quantifiable results of student progress. End-of-the-semester evaluations, whether formatted as a traditional exam or through a more innovative technique, are necessary measurements of both student and professor aptitude.

Oliver is an English and sociology freshman.