Jeremy Côté

No Final Exam

Here’s a thought: what if the class you were in had no final exam?

I know, it seems preposterous. Whenever one thinks of a mathematics or science course, a final exam is a no-brainer. It’s never a surprise to the students that your class will have a final exam, because that’s the tradition. Mathematics classes have final exams as a rule. It’s the way that students show that they’ve understood the material throughout the semester.

But is it necessary?

Goals of a final exam

There are several goals of a final exam, both implicit and explicit ones. On the explicit side, the final exam is there to test a student on their knowledge of everything they learned in a semester. It serves the purpose of verifying that a student has a good general knowledge of the subject. Plus, the nature of the final exam ensures that students aren’t just copying answers online, and can do the work themselves.

On the implicit side, the exam’s format and time limit makes students answer the question, “Can they perform under pressure?” Also, the fact that students have multiple exams bunched up within a week or two only increases stress.

The result of this is that the final exam period is a stressful time for students. They have to perform their best on multiple tests (often concerning different subject matter) in a small time range. I think we can all agree that this isn’t the most conducive environment to student performance. Yet, this is the most important part of the semester for students! This assymmetry between the importance of the exams and the fact that everything is bunched up has never made sense to me. Shouldn’t we be promoting student performance, rather than having them go through such a stressful time?

To give a personal example, I had to write six final exams in the span of seven days. That’s already a lot of exams in a short period, but it gets worse. During that period, I had three days off. This meant that I wrote six exams in four (non-consecutive) days. I can assure you that it wasn’t the most enjoyable time in the world.

Each semester that passes makes me more and more convinced that final exams aren’t worth it. They create an artificial environment that wouldn’t ever be present elsewhere, and the stress on students is enormous. It’s not worth the burden to students’ mental health to give “one last go” at studying before the semester is over. This is without even mentioning the fact that there are other assignments and projects that are due during an exam period, creating more work for the students to manage. It creates what I call the “Big Squeeze”, a period in which students and teachers have a huge workload just before everything becomes calm again. I want to argue that we can do without such an end to the semester, without compromising the goals of a course.

It’s evident that we cannot just remove the final exam and be done with it. Classes will become too easy, due to the way they are structured at the moment. This is why I would like to see more instances of a much different philosophy to a class.

An alternative

First, remove the final exam. It creates unneeded stress on the students, who have a lot on their plates already. Instead, I would like to see the emphasis of grades be put on the assignments.

Yes, you heard me right. If I had my way, I would create a class where almost the entire grade was based on assignments. Before, you shake your head and say that this is impossible, hear me out. The reason that most people who read this will think this is unreasonable is because solutions to problems are so easy to find online. Type in part of the question, and one can find the answer to any question. This is not good, since it means the student could get a great grade in the class without being able to do anything on their own. So what’s the solution?

You might know where I’m going with this. The answer is for teacher to create their own problems. If teachers want students to work through their assignments and not copy the solutions online, making up the problems is the best bet. There are two reasons why this is useful. For one, teachers can ensure that they’re getting students to practice the exact topics that think think is important. Second, since they created the problems, they know that the students had to work at solving these problems without only copying.

I know, it’s long and difficult work to create your own problems. It’s time-consuming, and isn’t a high priority compared to the million other things you have to do. Becoming a problem-designer isn’t what teachers want to do. But, I want to argue that this is the path forward if we want to eliminate final exams.

Also, keep in mind that teachers don’t have to design as many assignments. For example, they could give a few “regular” assignments whose purpose is to get students to practice applying the concepts that they learned in class. Then, they could create a few larger assignments that form the backbone of the course, where students have to dig deep and think about the concepts. You don’t need a lot of these in a course. A few will do the trick. Teachers can give these assignments more weight, and get rid of a final exam.

Furthermore, consider the material that teachers put on their final exams. Chances are, the material isn’t complicated. In fact, it deals with the more elementary concepts that were taught in class. Why? Because we know that students are stressed, and the time limit doesn’t help. As such, the questions are in general easier. But with assignments, teachers can create many more challenging questions that force students to pause and ponder. They won’t have to worry about a deadline, because they will have ample time to think about the questions and answer them. In this sense, it’s a win for both the students (who aren’t as stressed out) and the teacher (who gets to ask deeper questions).

Final exams are a sort of certification at this point. They declare that a student is good enough to pass a course. But the implementation of final exams isn’t so great. The fact that students have to deal with multiple final exams in a short period of time only increases stress. This isn’t conducive to performance. Instead, it encourages students to adopt habits that create exhaustion and that aren’t aligned with learning. The focus is all about getting “past” one exam in order to prepare for the next. I think we can all agree that we can do better. Moving from a final exam type of course to one that is based on assignments could be that different format which helps students learn more, without as much stress1.

  1. Of course, student’s might get stressed out about more work in the semester, but I think that this would be an acceptable tradeoff for no final exam.