Opinion | Let finals reflect productive examining
May 6, 2021
Finals: What’s the point? If 33% of my grade depends on a single paper or exam — and subsequently my course grade stems from this highly weighted metric — I believe I am entitled to the answer.
For the majority of University courses, the semester’s final consists of a cumulative assignment meant to evaluate students on their grasp of the semester’s material. Yet, why is proving one’s knowledge of the course material at the end of a semester beneficial?
This hints at a larger issue about the purpose of post-secondary studies in general. What is the purpose of college? The two main answers are, one, obtaining credentials as a signal to prospective employers, and two, attaining skills and knowledge necessary for employment.
Examining the second answer first, grades in college matter because they represent the percent of material necessary for employment that
you have achieved in academic studies.
It is crucial whether a civil engineering major graduates with a 4.0 or 2.0 GPA: The underachieving student will not be perceived as not retaining the requisite knowledge to draft plans — for instance — for a structurally sound bridge.
In job markets that do not necessarily depend on knowledge and skills gained at university, the answer to the question of college’s purpose is the aforementioned former. The credentialing of a four-year degree separates the most highly educated job seekers from the less highly educated, and therefore, a degree is more sought after from employers.
College curriculums weed out less capable students; those who drudge through classes for the sake of proving their work ethics are rewarded with shiny gold stars on their midterm, a 4.0 and an easier job search.
The purpose of college, as a whole, falls along a spectrum between these two answers depending on major and career plan. Likewise, so do the individual classes of the curriculum.
The grades — and by extension, finals — of courses with material integral to one’s chosen career must accurately portray a given student’s mastery of the subject matter. Conversely, courses without applicable information strive to have cumbersome grading criteria for the sake of forcing students to display, and be graded upon, their work ethic by proxy.
For courses that fall into this category of grading work ethics, the current normative structure of final exams is sufficient. The finals come down to how proficient students are at temporarily memorizing and cramming a semester’s worth of information into their head to be stored for a couple of hours and immediately forgotten — or, if not immediately, then later when a fresh semester begins.
One could argue those with the best work ethics will be those who study continuously throughout the semester; cramming, then, is unnecessary as the semester comes to a close.
That is true. But, for the majority of students with a time preference of the present, studying will be procrastinated until it can no longer be ignored — and thus the phenomenon of cramming.
If temporary memorization is a skill employers look for, by all means, continue the final exam system for the courses utilized to measure work ethic.
As for courses that provide specific knowledge and skills, whether an individual can temporarily memorize the semester’s information and then forget it is of no use. These courses and careers value the longevity of students retaining learned information.
How do we measure academic longevity? Do not close the grade book at the end of the semester. Instead, leave 10% of the final grade in the form of quizzes administered at the end of every other subsequent semester.
Take Philosophy 200 your first semester freshman year? At the end of the other seven semesters at the university, take a short quiz on PHIL 200’s material worth the final 10% of your grade.
However, courses that exist as higher-level versions of earlier courses render this system partly unnecessary. After a student takes Intro to Macroeconomics then Intermediate Macroeconomics, the former’s grade book can be closed and the following quizzes will originate from the Intermediate course and so on.
This proposal will be a very unpopular one, but as far as it accomplishes the job of accurately reflecting the long-term retention of information of students, it performs wonderfully.
Nevertheless, as finals week draws near, ask yourself how your courses function in the context of your academic journey and what the core function of each final should be.
Samuel is a junior in LAS.