Editorial Notebook

The effectiveness vs. non-effectiveness of finals

As I approached the end of my first semester of college, I faced what many of my peers had experienced for years: final exams. These brought about a mixture of stress and anticipation, a simultaneous feeling of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel yet having so far left to go. Amidst the hardcore studying all over campus, I saw students facing what they saw as the seemingly inevitable way to close out a semester of college. Personally, I don’t see finals as a necessity. I haven’t had any official final exams since my freshman year of high school and frankly, I preferred it that way.

To my knowledge, the reasons that my high school administration decided to discontinue midyear and final exams were the undue stress it inflicted on students and the increasing mental health repercussions they were seeing within the student body. When my friends and I first heard the news, we rejoiced. Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to skip two large periods of exams worth a significant portion of our final grades? But as I reached my later years of high school, I started to realize why many of the teachers had opposed this decision.

From the very beginning of the administration's efforts, one particular argument I commonly heard amongst teachers was that these big exams were not restricted to just high school: they were an ever-present element of all higher level education. Though freeing us from final exams would benefit us in the moment, they argued that it wouldn't help us in the long run. If anything, it would leave us more stressed when faced with life-altering exams like the GRE or MCAT, or even with taking the SATs, ACTs, and APs. Having taken the last three, I can say that I personally felt less prepared than my other final-taking peers. Whereas students at other schools had the opportunity to develop their own study techniques for significant exams and figured out how to effectively review large amounts of material, I had to spend extra time attempting to figure out what study habits worked for me, and I noticed that many friends at my school shared the same sentiment. Especially when it came to AP exams, which mimicked the same type of information review that midyears and finals contained, teachers had to extensively incorporate exam prep into their classes, attempting to make up for years of lost experience.

Despite all of these reasons, I’ve seen many issues with how final exams are set up within school systems. While these large exams are unavoidable and the skills needed for them should be practiced, I believe that the general setup of college finals week is not the most effective. Whereas the GRE or MCAT is a singular test, finals are set over the course of one hectic week, where students are forced to study for multiple, if not all, of their classes. It makes students become proficient at time management, organization, and studying in general. However, the main question I ask is: how effectively does this one stress-filled, hectic week represent a student’s knowledge in a course?

Between frantically trying to review multiple subjects and cramming in as much study time as possible, many people lose sight of their personal health. Besides how detrimental this can be for mental health, finals week also lends itself to poor personal hygiene, both of which can also affect a student’s performance. And, contrary to popular belief, there are other ways to cumulatively assess students’ performance besides placing all final exams in a single week after classes end.

When my high school’s administration canceled finals, teachers were still allowed to give their own “summative exams” within their own class time. Though taking a test worth 600 points of one’s term grade was equally if not more stressful than midyears and finals, the fact that they were not scheduled within one jam-packed week made them more tolerable. Instead of having to cram-study for multiple, heavily-weighted exams, there are only one or two major exams amongst other normally-weighted ones. They allowed many people to prioritize their time efficiently, and gave them the proper amount of time to study for their summative exams, get other homework done, and have enough time to take a breather.

There are some college classes that mimic this same format, giving 2-4 major exams throughout the semester and no formal exam during finals week. However, if a professor is not giving an exam during finals week, the last exam often takes place during the last week of classes, if not on the last day. Consequently, students are forced to prioritize those tests before beginning to study for their finals. Ironically, one common piece of advice that my teachers and professors have often reminded their students of is distributed practice: multiple, smaller study sessions over time lead to longer information retention compared to cramming. It is unfair for educators to expect their students to begin studying for final exams early because those who give tests right before finals week cause undue stress.

What I’ve taken away from my experiences is that both finals and their absence are a problem. Exam-taking is a skill that needs to be taught throughout one’s educational journey, but not in the traditional method high schools and colleges tend to employ. However, there is a very simple solution: time. For instance, colleges could space out finals week, decreasing the possibility that students will have multiple exams on the same day or consecutive days. With a decreased amount of stress and anxiety and extra study time, students are able to take care of themselves and improve their grades, creating a more happy and healthy student body.