It’s that time of year again, when I spend a lot of time reflecting on the semester and academic year. I have already posted once about this, and I have at least two more ideas incubating in my mind. The idea that came to me today as I graded final exams, calculated final averages, and entered final grades into “the system” is that universities – or perhaps my university – put a lot of emphasis on finals. This led me to consider whether or not there TOO much emphasis on final exams. As it is now, we set aside an entire week, shuffle the schedule, and give each professor 2.5 hours to administer the exam. Yet, I have not given a comprehensive final since my 2nd year of teaching higher education. Is this really worthy of its own week?
My first college teaching assignment was as a Master’s student, and I taught public speaking. It was a massive faculty-directed, TA-taught course where they basically told us what to do. We had some freedom to teach any way we wanted, but we had to give the same assignments and grade using the same rubric. If our overall GPA was too high, we got a personal note from the course director telling us to grade harder. We also had to give a comprehensive final, which seemed totally ridiculous for a public speaking class.
Since those days, I have jockeyed between giving a final project (portfolio, paper, etc.) and giving the last test during the final time slot. My current university is adamant about professors doing something during finals week, so I have been using that time to give the last exam. I have also used this time to have students present their final projects, but it just seems contrived to me and seems to always fall a little flat. Some of the more adventurous faculty have the students bring food and they have a party.
My point is, there is a certain amount of hype associated with finals that I am starting to think is unnecessary. Whereas my students typically cram for the first two exams, they spend days and days studying for the last exam. And what is the payoff? Actually, the course average was lower than the second exam even though the exams were about at the same level of difficulty. I have exams weighted so that each test accounts for about 13% of the final grade. I did this a few semesters ago because I wanted the exams to mean something. Before I weighted the exam scores, a student could do poorly on exams and still eek out a decent grade by getting some of the “sit-and-get” grades, such as attendance or participation. Basically, taking the exam counted the same toward the course average as showing up to lecture and surfing Pinterest for an hour. So, what does this mean in terms of the last exam’s impact on the overall grade? Here are some points to consider (remember, this is based on a scale where each exam contributes 13%, or 39% total, toward the overall grade):
- 35 out of 53 students got a score on the final within 2 percentage points of their current average. Mathematically, this had absolutely no impact on the final grade. For example, if a student was sitting at 91.21% and got a 93% on the final, the overall average was raised to 91.55% (I’m making these numbers up, of course, but they are pretty accurate to what I observed). Unless a student was a fraction of a percentage point from the next grade, this had no impact. It was just damage control.
- If a student scored 10 percentage points higher or lower on the final than the overall average, it meant a difference of 1 percentage point either way. In fact, this held true for every 10 percentage point differential. For example, getting a 75% on the test would lower the average from 85 to 84. That also means that getting a 100% on the test would only raise the average from a 85 to 87 (and that is a generous estimate). This is the difference between a B and B+, which is hardly the Hail Mary the students think it is.
- 9 out of 53 students went down one grade based on their final exam score, and each of them was 1 point or less from the borderline. That is, they went from a B+ to a B, but they started at 87.1% not 89.9%.
- Only one student went UP a grade based on the final exam score, and the starting average was already less than a percentage point from the cutoff.
Are you confused yet?
I am not advocating students completely blowing off a final because it won’t make a difference in the long run. Students should always give their best effort no matter what. I also know that students spend just about as much time eating junk food and complaining about their professors during “dead days” as they do studying. I am just wondering if we should put so much emphasis on that one week when it’s really the students’ body of work throughout the semester that compiles their course average.
I am curious to know how others handle finals, and if they have more (or less) of an impact in your courses than what I have described? How are finals handled in other disciplines? Should they be more high-stakes, or are they just hype?