The Spectre of Final Exams

So – yesterday I blogged musing on what I find interesting. Today I am blogging about something I DO NOT find interesting. I have had a troubled relationship with final exams in schools for some time. I believe – I mean, I really deeply believe – that learning should be a cumulative exercise. The ideas we work hard to understand, the skills we practice toward mastery, the meaningful conversations we have together in class are all experiences that we should be able to carry forward and use as building blocks to grow as learners. In this worldview a final exam should not be a cause of deep stress. Especially if the exam is structured in a way that places less of an emphasis on smaller facts and skills that we might ask in a quiz or a short unit test. You know, look for the big ideas and capture the broad strokes of what we have discussed during the term. However, I have been teaching math long enough to know that most of my students aren’t learning in this fashion. They feel pressured, they feel frantic at times, they feel overworked. In these conditions homework is often just something to get done. Studying turns into short, intense bursts of cramming material in short-term memory. Too often their teachers are complicit in concentrating on the day to day progress so that we are not explicit enough often enough to point out connections and remind ourselves and our students of what has happened in the past. Under this worldview final exams are a terrifying mess. In the span of four days this week my students will have up to five exams and those with fewer exams are trading off by having large papers turned in. What I see are tired, stressed kids who don’t seem to be growing as a result of this experience. Surely, there are better ways to use our time together. I am a team player and I administer exams in the fall and spring in my classes. We say as a school that we value these opportunities to show cumulative growth. If we say we believe in this process, then I want to be on board. We say that part of our role as a college preparatory school is to help prepare for the expectations of college and one of those standard expectations is a final exam for many courses. What troubles me is that there is an inverse relationship between the number of exams a student has and the grade level that they are in. Our freshman have the most exams and our seniors have the fewest.

I say as an individual that the ability to tie together ideas to move forward is a crucial sign of having internalized some skills and ideas. So I want to show my students I believe in this and I ask them twice a year to go through this process. I try to make sure that all my unit tests along the way include opportunities to make explicit the connection between current topics and past material. I hope that this helps some, but I still se a great deal of stress.

So, I ask for the wisdom of the internet community of teachers and administrators. Is this model of exam time just antiquated? Can it be modified in a meaningful way? What do you do at your schools?