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Why Do Schools Have Finals?

There’s a lot for students to look forward to around this time of the year. Winter vacation is getting close, and if you’re a senior, a less-stressed second semester is right around the corner. But one obstacle stands in your way at the end of the year: finals. And it can be more like five or six obstacles, depending on how many classes you’re taking!

Finals week is always a stressful time for students. Huge assignments come at you quickly in a relatively short period of time, and instructors have a tendency to forget that you’re taking classes besides their own. You have to work hard to manage it all. But is there a method to the madness of final exams added to this stressful time or are you being tortured for no particular reason?


Why Finals Are Popular

Apparently there is a reason why schools have finals. This 2013 study found that final exams are critical to the long-term retention of information within a given course. It’s not too hard to see the logic behind this notion: finals, especially cumulative finals, give students an incentive to revisit past material they may have forgotten. Even if you missed some of the material the first time around, it’s useful to revisit past lessons at the end now that you have a more “big picture” overview of the course. Consider this input about the final from a professor at the University of Albany:

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. 

Of course, it’s doubtful you’ll remember everything you were taught in a class. But retaining the most important pieces of information from class can help to better prepare you for higher level classes, and the information may even be relevant to whatever you decide to pursue!

Others consider the fact that the value of final exams may lie in the test-taking practice they provide to students. Even though finals can be overwhelming, that can be good practice for other types of formal exams like standardized tests, inevitable college finals, or even higher-education exams law school or medical school entrance tests. Finals can also be viewed as a sort of opportunity for students. Because final exams typically account for a large percentage of the overall course grade, any student who is dissatisfied with their pre-final grade can potentially use the exam to make up for their performance earlier in the semester.

Why They May Be Changing

However, despite these apparent benefits of final exams, the importance of finals seems to be decreasing in higher education. In 2010, only 23% of undergraduate courses at Harvard had a formal final exam. But this doesn’t mean students got off easily: formal final exams are being increasingly replaced by long-term assignments, like projects or papers. The goal of this move is to reduce the role that memorization plays in the undergraduate experience. By emphasizing the practical application of classroom topics, the focus shifts from straight up memorization to an approach more centered on the synthesis of information, a valuable life skill.

Another different approach to student assessment is in the form of incremental testing. One study found that students in a math class that were quizzed weekly outperformed students in a class with just a few large exams by an average of 16%! Incremental testing has also been shown to reduce stress among students. Not only are they less pressure psychologically, but they also provide more “room for error” in case one or two smaller tests turn out poorly.

Maybe one day final exams will be a thing of the past, replaced by incremental testing and/or a larger project that checks how you apply what you have learned. But for now, it looks like finals are sticking around in some form or another, and continue in most colleges, so just take a deep breath and start preparing!

How do you deal with finals? We’d love to hear about it!



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