Frantically Final

Final exams sketch

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Finals week can be so hard on faculty and students alike. Stressed-out sleep-deprived students are trying to cram four months’ worth of course material times four or five courses back (or in for the first time!) into their brains. They are feverishly writing paper after paper after paper. Then, of course, we have to grade it all, under a huge time pressure to turn in grades before the winter recess. Why do we do this?

When I am planning my courses, I think about the trajectory and the story line, where I plan to end up. The course material links, merges, flows to a nicely integrated, packaged up conclusion. What could be more fitting than to have the students do some kind of final assignment that emphasizes that synthesis, that culmination? Voilá, a final is born!

Most every course has some kind of final experience. Many courses here at Vassar have more than one large type of assignment due in the last week or two of the term. There’s the last topic test or paper, due at the end of the semester. A few days later, the students turn in their FINAL paper or exam, the culminating assignment. What are the goals of these last assignments?

  • For students to demonstrate mastery of the course concepts
  • For students to review and rediscover (and so solidify) the content of the course
  • For students to learn something new or apply their knowledge in a new way.

Lots of wonderful goals. How does this play out in reality though?

Let’s say Sally is taking four courses: a math course, a science course, a history course and an English course. What might she be facing during study period and finals? The last week of classes she probably had a problem set due in math, a lab report in the science course, possibly a final topic test in the science course, a research paper in the history course (often 5-10 pages long, that she should have started weeks ago) and a paper in the English course. Then, during finals a few days later, she would have a math final (cumulative of course), a science final (yes, cumulative), a final paper for History, handed out the last day of class and a final paper for English. So, over the course of about 10 days, the student has a *&$#% load of work to do. Probably adding up to 50% of the grade in each course, too. Talk about STRESS AND PRESSURE!

I just wonder…..does this kind of workload make for a good learning experience? Are there other ways to assess course mastery that might not cause students to have nervous breakdowns?

I’ve thought about this for many years. One time I asked some of my senior students what would happen if a professor decided to lighten up on the final work load. Would better learning take place? They all said, “No. What would happen is we would just put that course to the bottom of the priority stack. The courses that require the most work get the most attention.” Is this what we are doing? Vying for attention?

Sally’s workload is not an exaggeration. It’s quite typical and by no means the worst I’ve heard as a Class Advisor. The frantic-ness of finals is not healthy. The environment during finals does not promote learning. It just creates panic and exhaustion. Is the finals period a rite of passage or a sort of academic hazing?

I think we need to consider different ways of having our students demonstrate their mastery of the course material at the end of the semester. The way things are right now is just madness.


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Have a great time grading all that final work and see you back in January! If you have a friend or colleague you think might like to subscribe to my blog, please send along my link!