As we approach the end of the year, students are filled with a level of dread all too familiar: final examinations.
Students are often in a default state of stress because of the three, four or sometimes five written exams they have to endure before feeling the sweet freedom of winter break. Is all of that stress worth it in the end? Are we really learning effectively from highlighting pages of notes, memorizing them for hours and then regurgitating its contents onto a page within two hours time?
I argue we have made passing exams such a high priority in our undergraduate career that we have lost sight of the true purpose of attending college. And that is learning and preparing for the world around us.
I am not saying that final exams need to be done away with. On the contrary, I respect that there needs to be some form of examination to quantify how much a student has learned. I do argue that written exams should not be an exclusive means of gauging how much I have learned.
My biggest problem with exams is how students will cram for hours, throw as much as they can remember onto the page and then reflect back on that exam a week or a month later and realize they hardly remember anything. The atmosphere of written exams does not encourage students to remember what we learned for longer than what is required to complete our exam.
If we are not to remember the important aspects of that exam for longer than a few months, then what is the purpose of learning it? How does memorizing the Presidents of the United States help me if I do not understand why they were elected and how they helped or hindered the U.S. government?
There are other ways to challenge a student and determine what they have learned. This is why oral presentations exist, as well as essays and group projects. Especially for students who experience significant anxiety over an exam. These are alternatives to multiple-choice exams that let the student explain what they understand.
Better yet, I encourage professors to sit down with their students and have a 10 minute conversation about what interests them. Let them discover and share their classroom experience and how it relates to the world outside those doors. I believe you may find that a student’s true knowledge about the subject will come across much better than through a two-hour multiple-choice exam.