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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Do you give final exams during final exam week?

Although I did not give final exams this fall semester, I also didn't have time to comment on a couple articles about profs who don't give finals because I was busy grading final papers. So you can imagine my reaction to Dan Hamermesh complaining about "lazy academics", saying that his colleagues were imposing a negative externality on him by not having finals (since it led many of his students to request taking his exam early because they wanted to leave town). While I can sympathize with his complaints about the emails, his assumption that his colleagues were lazy struck me as bizarre. Many of the comments on that post rightfully pointed out that in many courses, final exams are a pretty poor way to assess whether students actually learned anything and papers or projects are much better (and the fact that Hamermesh has 520 students is probably a way bigger problem than his colleagues not giving final exams).

Dean Dad had a slightly different complaint, noting that many faculty do give final exams but move them up to the last week of classes (which may also be related to Hamermesh's issue, since Hamermesh has no idea why his students do not have other exams during finals week). This means that some instructors are basically cutting a week out of the semester but it isn't really feasible to figure out who is shirking and who has legitimate reasons for not having a final exam.

My first reaction to Dean Dad's post was to wonder if it is more common to see early finals in the semester system versus the quarter system. With a ten-week quarter, I imagine I would feel like I couldn't afford to give up any of the regular class time, that there would be too much I would want to cover. But with a fifteen-week semester, I have often felt that students (and I!) are simply burnt out by week eleven or twelve so a lot of the last week is spent reviewing anyway, and an early final seems like a more efficient use of time. I also wonder if the practice of giving final exams early has become more common at state schools impacted by budget cuts - the economist in me cannot help but think that if you pay people the same amount (or less) but make their jobs harder (by giving them more students and less support), it's only rational that they will look for other ways to compensate themselves.

I admit that it felt a bit weird to not be giving a final exam in the data analysis course but I believe the final projects my students did were a better way for them to tie together everything we did this semester. I suppose I could have given them a final exam as well, or broken up the project so that part of it was completed in class, as a final exam, but honestly, one of the reasons I did not want to give a final exam in that course is that I was pretty sure that grading such an exam would be way too painful. Of course, it turns out that grading the final projects was probably just as painful but at least a) when I had to give students C's and D's, I knew that they could not use a time limit as an excuse for their sloppy work, and b) the sloppiness I had to read was all in their thinking, not their handwriting. I may re-think the final exam thing for next semester but giving a final just to give a final, or just because the University sets a certain time for a final exam, seems like a strange reason to do it...


  1. I agree – final exams for the sake of final exams does seem strange. My college requires that instructors who assign final projects make them due no earlier than the date of the final exam, so even if the instructor has no intention of meeting students in finals week, he/she must still be present on the day of the final. Most students turn in projects the last week of class, then skip town [final exams seem to be fewer and fewer]. But instructors must remain present the day of the final exam, since that is the official due date of any final project or paper.

    What should be mandatory IMHO are culminating assessments that allow everyone involved (students, instructors, administrators) to see the extent to which students have met course goals [maybe even require students to reflect about such accomplishment as part of the assessment]. Comprehensive tests or projects throughout the term are good ways to show learning. Maybe final exam week should simply be an optional last opportunity to demonstrate learning for students who have yet to do so.

  2. Dispersemos says "But instructors must remain present the day of the final exam, since that is the official due date of any final project or paper." I wonder whether an instructor would have to remain present if he/she allowed online submissions of the final project/paper?

  3. My institution does not require faculty to give final exams; we do, however, prohibit (with mixed success) giving "final-exam-equivalents" during the last week of class.

    My final exams are generally not "comperhensive/this covers the entire semester" tests, but tests covering the last 1/3 (roughly) of the material. So I'm in sort of a netherworld...


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