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Are Final Exams Going out of Style?

Just in: Latest trend that finals are becoming a thing from the past. Don’t believe me? Just read.

I hate to bring it up, but it is that time of the year again. Finals. Now, before you close this article to distract yourself from this very topic I encourage you to give me a skim, read, or if you really like me, share. So why is it that everything you learned the past four months is suddenly dumped into one test surmised to measure your apparent comprehension of an entire subject? Maybe it’s because it is the same method professors have been using since the early 19th century. This means that our country has been using the same tool to assess students for the past two-hundred years. Let’s take a peek at what the university system looked like back then.

To start, co-ed colleges didn’t even exist and there were only a handful of female higher education institutions across the country. Did you know that Harvard University didn’t start admitting females until as late as 1977? The point I am trying to make here is that times have most definitely changed since the inception of traditional final examinations.

Progress is the key to modern society. Now more than ever, freedom of speech can be exercised by anyone, pending only on internet access. And with these technological advances, new voices have been heard; including students’ ever resounding complaints about finals.

So who is listening?

Although I might have called them out earlier regarding the co-ed fact, when it comes to finals Harvard is quite ahead of the game. In Spring of 2011, a mere 259 undergraduate courses had scheduled final exams out of 1,137 total (Jay M. Harris, Dean of Undergraduate Education). As for graduate level courses the percentage of finals scheduled was even lower, at just 3%. If students are no longer taking exams in the traditional sense, then how are they being measured?

Take a look at University of California, Berkeley. This school provides professors with an optional list of creative project ideas in place of a final exam. Another trend, is offering tests throughout the semester instead of having to cram at the very end. Many professors at Northern Arizona University endorse this approach and currently practice it. Perhaps one of the most common alternatives, is assigning a paper at the end of the term. While students are still graded on their final efforts, they can say goodbye to late night coffee runs while crunching for final exams.

I will leave you with an interesting question posed by Keith O’Brien in his article, The Test Has Been Canceled:

Is the disappearance of high-stakes, high-pressure final exams a sign that universities are failing to challenge today’s students, or is it just a long overdue acknowledgment that such tests aren’t always the best indicator of actual knowledge?

I’d be willing to put my stakes on the latter, wouldn’t you?


Nicole Santarsiero is  a team member at College Success Arizona.  Nicole has a Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish and Religious Studies from Stonehill College in Massachusetts, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA), from the University of Massachusetts.

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