Final Exams May Not Really Measure Learning

Why Final Exams May Not Measure Learning

It’s the time of year when final exams are on the list of upcoming activities for many college students. This form of evaluation has been a standard practice among colleges and its underlying purpose is to assess what students have learned, the knowledge they’ve acquired, and the progress made towards meeting the learning objectives of their professors. Through this summative assessment, students are supposed to demonstrate subject matter expertise related to course concepts, critical thinking skills, and academic writing skills. While these qualities are foundational components of learning, the question that educators must consider is whether or not these summative assessments measure learning or do they measure memorization. Some educators believe that a final exam is beneficial and others argue against its effectiveness and utilize formative learning assessments.
Are there Benefits for Use of Final Exams?

The traditional college class structure consists of lectures and assessments, which often include a final exam. The final exam provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate what was learned and serves as documentation for the overall grade earned. What’s often discussed among educators and schools is the design and format of the exam. For example, Ian W. Brown, an associate professor at the University of Alabama, finds that a final exam can demonstrate learning because “we can assign readings, but seldom in lecture courses are we able to assess just how much is actually read and absorbed.” Brown’s point is that a summative assessment, the final exam, allows an instructor to measure what students have learned. I’m in agreement with the need to check the students’ progress; however, that is also the reason why I conduct formative assessments throughout the class instead of summative assessments at the end – to measure students’ thinking and learning.  

Robert L. Bangert-Drowns of the University of Albany believes that frequent testing would be of greater benefit for students; however, he notes that many educators find that the final exam is beneficial because “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.” This is true, provided that the students don’t wait until the last minute to begin studying because memorizing information is not the same as knowing it.

What can make the final exam an effective assessment tool is the avoidance of random guessing and prompting of focused studying. This means eliminating a surprise exam that students cannot accurately prepare for. The University of Minnesota informs its instructors that “preparing for the final exam can be a powerful learning experience if we give students the information they need to study effectively.” As a college instructor I agree with this strategy; however, it seems that waiting until the end of the class to conduct an assessment, even with an effectively planned strategy, misses an opportunity to provide corrective coaching as needed.
Why Exams Don’t Help Students   

Students understand that they must study for a final exam and many will wait until shortly before the exam to review their notes and the course materials, creating fear and stress. To make matters worse, instructors often utilize a multiple choice format, due to the time required for them to grade the exams, which makes the process even more stressful because students may be guessing between answers that appear to be similar. Even short answer questions can cause stress, if students cannot recall what they’ve memorized, and when students feel that kind of pressure they may not perform their best. In addition, educators have discovered that a lot of the information students tried to memorize is forgotten after the exam has concluded.

David Jaffee, professor of sociology at the University of North Florida, indicated in his commentary, Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams, that “learning is equated with studying for exams and, for many students, studying for exams means ‘cramming,’ and “a growing amount of research literature consistently reports that cramming—short-term memorizing—does not contribute to retention or transfer.” Jaffee further recommends that instead of instructors “telling students to study for exams, we should be telling them to study for learning and understanding.” The reason for this belief is that information memorized is only retained by students for a short period of time, which does not promote real learning. Only through comprehension of what has been read, along with repetition and authentic use, will the information be stored in long-term memory.

Other Approaches

The use of the final exam within higher education institutions is changing. For example, in the 2010 spring term, Jay M. Harris, the dean of undergraduate education at Harvard University, noted that only 23 percent of the courses held a final exam, or 259 of the 1,137 undergraduate courses. This represents “the lowest number since 2002, when 200 fewer courses were offered.” As a result, any professor who wants to use a final exam must now make that decision within the first week of class as it will not be assumed that a final will be automatically given in the class. The common viewpoint held by educators across multiple disciplines and schools who no longer wish to give a final is summed up best by Linda Serra Hagedorn, a professor at Iowa State University and president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, who believes that it is better “to have a more holistic approach to learning where one learns in steadier and smaller increments.”

Educator Jon Orech, in his blog The Wisdom of Finals, also confirms that the use of a final exam does not align with current trends such as the student-centered classroom, project-based learning, and collaborative learning. Orech states that traditionally the “biggest assessment of the year is done in a timed, isolated setting with a student completing primarily recall questions in a passive, non-creative fashion.” A project-based assessment offers a creative solution because it encourages students to work with the course topics and concepts, demonstrating what they know and what has been learned incrementally along the way through smaller assignments, presentations, or other learning activities.

I’ve utilized portfolio or project-based approaches recently and had my marketing students work on marketing plans throughout the class; completing one component each week so that I could monitor their progress and provide coaching along the way. Students were able to demonstrate knowledge of the course concepts, along with practical application of these core concepts to real world scenarios. Additional assessments such as quizzes, individual or group in-class activities, or non-graded formative assessments may also be given as a means of measuring students’ progress throughout the class.  The purpose of implementing multiple assessments is to help students avoid information overload and promote active learning.

To Learn or Not To Learn

In higher education it is difficult to develop standards that can be applied to all courses and all disciplines. The lecture and final exam format provided a standard for the industry that has been utilized for a long time. However, many educators now incorporate formative assessments that check students’ progress throughout the class. It seems the growing discontentment about the use of final exams is that they may not accurately measure the learning process. Maybe students have had it right all along when they indicated that taking a final exam is not an enjoyable process. Students need time to work with information to process and comprehend it if learning is to occur.

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