Most of us understand the stress, pressure, and terror of college final exams. They inevitably involve cramming for hours and days before the hours-long cumulative exam that will test the material you learned throughout the semester in minute details. These exams have become such an integral part of college that there is an entire week dedicate to their preparation, called "finals week" by most and "dead week" by many more. There has long been debate between scholars and students about the effectiveness of these final exams. Some students study the material simply to pass the exam and don’t actually absorb the material, which is not beneficial or a true measure of what students actually learned in class. Also, more and more college professors are offering students additional options to a comprehensive final exam, like group projects, presentations, or no exam at all if their grades are good enough.
In light of these factors, Harvard University recently eliminated mandatory final examinations. The standing rule at Harvard originally was that professors who did not wish to give a final exam would have to seek special permission from the dean of their college. However, each semester, more professors were simply canceling their exams without notifying the college registrar. Last spring, only 23 percent of classes scheduled final exams at the school. This low number prompted school officials to change the rules. Going forward, final exams are not compulsory and only those professors interested in issuing a final exam will be required to notify the registrar. This move overturns a Harvard tradition that spans over 350 years since the schools inception and has students and professors alike questioning the consequences.
Professors and school officials opposed to the change question how they will now assess students’ knowledge and whether they are failing to challenge students’ academically. According to one professor, quoted in the Boston Globe, exams help measure both the students’ and the institutions’ performances.
“You can measure an institution’s performance, a department’s performance,” James Engell, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard, told the Globe. “But the real question is: How much did your students learn? How much better are they at something now than they were when they started? And I think examinations — whether they’re final examinations or other kinds of examinations — play a real part in that.”
Conversely, a dean from the University of Albany SUNY believes that exams can be arbitrary and inauthentic benchmarks for what students learn in a course. "If you looked at a lot of final exams in courses you’d think, ‘This is not a very valuable standard.’ These tests ask the kind of questions that students may never be asked again in their lives, in detail that they may never be asked again in their lives,” Robert Bangert-Drowns told the Globe.
Now that one of the most prestigious universities in the world has adopted the "no finals" philosophy, it is certain that more will follow its lead. And no matter which side of the argument you fall, it is clear to see that more institutions of higher education are attempting to review their decades and centuries old traditions and adapting them to reflect the current times.
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