Photo By: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu from Unsplash

With the end of the semester fast approaching, many students are turning their focus toward their final exams. 

Structure differs depending on the program and subject, but generally speaking, the final exam is worth a pretty significant portion of a final grade and will test students on the majority of the material covered in a semester (or at least since the midterm). 

Exam time can be pretty stressful and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who enjoys writing exams, but it’s often viewed as just another part of the university experience. 

The idea of cramming for finals is one that we’re all just so used to that hardly anyone stops to seriously question whether or not final exams are truly the most effective way to assess someone’s knowledge of a subject. 

If we see taking classes as a way of learning, then final grades would represent how much of the material has been absorbed and can be applied. Of course, that’s not always how it works. In many cases, assessments are sort of like a bar that has to be cleared, boxes that have to be checked in order to get course credit at the end of the semester. 

No matter what the point of final grades is, there has to be a better way to end the semester than by shuffling into a gym with 300 other students at 9 a.m., mentally calculating how many questions you need to answer correctly to get a “B.” 

Especially as students enter upper years of study where learning becomes more about concepts and understanding their applications, closed-book final exams do less to prove how much a student understands something and how much they’re capable of memorizing.

Of course, not all exams are created equal and some are designed more effectively than others. I’ve noticed two types of exam questions in my time as an undergrad, and both of them have their problems. The first kind are application questions that ask students to take what they’ve learned over a term and use it to solve a specific problem. The other kind of exam question is the kind that rewards memorization, often asking for specific facts, figures and definitions.

This latter feels particularly pointless to me. The kind of information memorized for an exam doesn’t seem likely to be useful in the future, if it’s remembered at all after the fact. Being able to answer that kind of question correctly really only proves that a student has a good memory, took detailed notes, or reviewed every single chapter of the textbook in preparation. That’s not exactly an effective way to demonstrate real knowledge of a subject. 

The other kind of exam question is definitely a better test of learning. Application questions require students to have an understanding of the material, not just to have memorized a bunch of facts. These are a more worthwhile use of time, both for students and instructors, but I can’t help but think they might be better as essay questions, or part of an open book take home exam. That would give students more time and flexibility to demonstrate their knowledge.

Students often prepare to write multiple finals at once, which can be a difficult and stressful time. It’s not easy on instructors either, exams have to be prepared and good instructors carefully consider how they’re going to test their students. Then of course, they have to be marked. 

All of this isn’t to say that there’s absolutely no place for closed book, written, final exams at the university level. They definitely have their place, it’s just that maybe that place doesn’t need to be at the end of every course.