Is That Your Final Answer?

05 January 2009

Every school I've worked in has had a "finals week." Sadly, I have to admit that until now, I never stopped to consider why they do this.

What is the purpose of a course final?

If assessment informs instruction---how would a final accomplish this? The class is over. It isn't as if the teacher can use the information for remediation purposes.

If the assessment is "practice" for college (for high school kids) or high school (for junior high tots), then is that a suitable purpose? Most kids aren't going to college...and while one might argue that a test may be required here and there for vocational certifications, can we really claim that taking a final is a life skill?

If we claim that it is a rite of passage or some sort, tradition, or "that's just the way it is," are those valid reasons?

Last year, I used The Final as the last ditch attempt opportunity for kids. They identified which standards still needed mastery and then only addressed those. They could choose an in-class opportunity on the allotted day of the final...or identify an alternative assessment that was due on the appointed time. All of this could only help them.

Is there a legitimate educational purpose (even for colleges) to have a final exam for a class?

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15 Comments:

Blogger Hugh O'Donnell said...

That is a damned good question, SG, because, for the most part, content is approx 90% forgotten if not reinforced within 24 hours.

Skills can be reviewed consistently, nested in newer skills development, but just plain content...? Who's kidding whom?

Unless we spend all our time reviewing, which, unfortunately, we foist off on the student (Amsco review books, eh?), there's no hope for good scores, and I would say, the time is better used for new instruction that will plant seeds for later student epiphanies.

You need to get over to my last post and make a positive declaration out of this question! :)

9:35 PM  
OpenID roxteacher said...

We did away with mid-terms and finals about 10 years ago at my HS. We had to use 4 days/year for the testing and no one was able to give any other assessments for TWO weeks prior to both mid terms and finals. The only ones who really cared were the teachers and the top kids (already under too much stress). The rest of the kids did as little as possible before and during the tests. We now have cumulative assessments throughout the year whenever the teacher feels the timing works. Much better.

2:29 AM  
Blogger wordmunger said...

Even if it can't inform instruction for the current set of students, it can inform instruction for the next set: Was the teaching over the previous semester effective? What can the teacher do better next time?

Also, students can see how they did in a class and use that to inform their own practices.

Everyone involved should be interested to know whether the material in the class was mastered.

Of course there are many ways besides formal "exams" to assess mastery, such as portfolio assessment, essays, oral presentations, and so on. But well-constructed exams can also help.

It is usually an error to attempt to use the exams themselves as a "teaching tool," but that doesn't mean that exams can't be useful for students and teachers.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Jonathan M. Pratt said...

We don't have mandatory finals here at my current school, but we did at my former. I must admit that I miss them a bit, but your post has prompted me to think more about it. I always looked at the final exam as a measure of how much the student retained - I'd usually try to make the exam focus on the "big" concepts & skills, rather than nitty-gritty details. I agree that one purpose of assessment is to inform instruction, but I do think another important purpose is to measure what's been learned. I'm not claiming that any one exam can be a perfect instrument for that measurement, but that's what the final exam always meant to me. And, on that note, I did use the results of the final exam for one cohort to inform my plans for the next...

4:58 AM  
Blogger The Science Goddess said...

Hugh---I actually have your post starred in my Reader...just haven't been able to construct the "right" reply yet. It has been fun to think about on my commute. :)

roxteacher---I've experienced a similar pattern with kids. In the old days (!), my final for biology kids was a 2-week event where they solved a murder. The application of microscopy, genetics, etc. was good for everyone.

wordmunger---I think there is some instructional value for the next batch of kiddos...but that makes me wonder, then, if the current batch should have to bear the brunt of the grade. In other words, if the results are going to be able to be used by the teacher and are frozen for students, is that a fair use of the information? As you suggest, a variety of assessments could definitely help.

Jonathan---This reminds me of a post I did several weeks ago where I was wondering about what it means to learn something. Is there a time limit for retention? Is application enough? I think you're right in that we (educators) look at finals as a measure of how much the student retained. Interesting to ponder why we want to do that and what it might mean.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Jane said...

As one of grad school professors said, finals have two purposes:
1. make students go over the material; and
2. demonstrate who learned the material.

Without finals/grades how do you know which students learned enough of the material from the class to be able to effectively learn from the next class in the sequence? How do the students know?

How does anyone else, e.g. college, grad school, employer, parent know what amount the student learned in the class?

6:15 AM  
Blogger Clix said...

So are you against summative assessment in general? I mean, that's what a final exam is - the students' opportunity to prove how well they have mastered the material in the course.

I'm not sure I agree with the "leftover" final where students address only what they haven't already shown they've mastered; it depends on how it's done. There's something to be said for showing that you haven't forgotten what you worked on before. But if the new material builds on the old, then it's more understandable.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Dorothy said...

In math, in college, absolutely. Seems to me it's all about mastery at that point. And in my experience, finals only helped -- didn't hurt the grade. Seems that most profs unconsciously saw the final as their last attempt at measuring mastery. (And there weren't lots of test grades, any homework grades, participation grades, dioramas and other performance BS to grade.)

Math in high school. I'd probably agree that some sort of final, some sort of demonstration of longer-term mastery of the main topics is a positive thing. How onerous should it be? Not very. But if you really cannot factor polynomials and simplify rational expressions, then you should not go to the next level class. It's not fair to you, to the next level teacher or to the students who are ready to *use* those skills to learn something new. A summary assessment at the end of the semester or year is not a bad thing. For many (some?) kids, studying for the final is what finally gets them to become fluent in the skills. If they are already fluent in the skills, then studying for the final is trivial.

That said, when I taught HS (private, small class sizes) I got creative (lazy?) and instituted oral finals. At first the kids freaked, but all I wanted was 10 minutes alone with each to make sure they had the basic ideas of geometry or algebra under their belts. I could easily tailor the 10 minutes to the strength of the child. Every student needed basic fluency, but the very strong students could have a more challenging 10 minutes, which usually turned out fun. (That was 25 years ago. I was fresh out of math grad school, never had an education class. It was bold of me. But the old-school other math teachers liked it and adopted it themselves.)

I can see the same sort of answer for foreign language, perhaps some science where curriculum is linear, but I really don't know. I'd sure like to know that my physician not only learned her science for the exam, but *retained* that knowledge later for a final and board certs.

Sorry for the long comment. I've been lurking for at least a year and am very intrigued by your discussions.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Angela said...

I think finals can be useful if, as wordmunger suggests, they focus on the big ideas. I like to get an idea of what my students really got out of a unit or course: what were they able to retain and apply? I think finals add another layer of accountability for students, too--they can't just forget something because they will need it again at the end of the course in what is (hopefully) a well-designed series of higher-level questions.

8:14 AM  
Blogger myshortpencil said...

Here's what's sad—that professional educators don't know why they do what they do. I hope this is a rhetorical question to stimulate thinking.

Finals—whether via exams, papers, projects, portfolios, or something else—generally serve the following purposes at a minimum, in no particular order:

* motivation for mastering knowledge and skills
* opportunity to review and synthesize materials
* competition to outperform others
* fear of failure or embarrassment
* a last opportunity to learn something from the class—exams should be teaching tools
* an opportunity to practice the skills acquired

9:10 AM  
Blogger Nancy Flanagan said...

Interesting post. While I've never been a fan of "gotcha" finals, if we want to measure ultimate retention, what other options do we have?

I agree that applying knowledge to a final project or paper is better than just multiple-choicing our way through a chunk of content. But I also like the idea of open-note finals, where students retrieve key facts and concepts from their own collection. My Music History prof let us bring a single page, one side, of notes to our (huge, comprehensive) finals each term. I still have those four pages of notes--the best "cheat sheet" on the sweep of music history across centuries of composers, historical periods and trends.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

Finals would indeed be pointless if assessments through the year measured mastery. But they don't. They largely measure short- and medium-term memory.

Most teachers have had the experience of finding out that students who seemed to understand when the unit was fresh actually don't. Finals are a way of rubbing our noses in that.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Mrs. H said...

Here is my take on finals. . .

When I was a math major in college, (now a math teacher), it wasn't until I began to study for my final that I was able to see how all of the topics that we had studied during the semester connected to each other.

I can't tell you how many times during my preparations for finals, I would say to myself, "Oh, I finally get this!"

When you learn in small chunks, it is sometimes hard to see how all the little pieces fit together.

This is what I hope happens to my students as they prepare for finals, but I'm pretty sure, for most of them, they just don't put in enough effort to get to the AHA! moments.

3:55 PM  
Blogger hschinske said...

I think the process of having to perform on a final exam is valuable in itself -- though it shouldn't be taken to the point of academic hazing ritual.

Helen

2:20 PM  
Blogger Lightly Seasoned said...

My exams are about skills (can they write an on-demand essay?) and the skills they're supposed to master for the long term (can they identify a metaphor?).

You know, my kids don't disappear next week. I get them all back 2nd semester. So, if I see that the thesis statements are still a bit wobbly, I can go back to them. And even in the spring, the kids only go on to another teacher in the building. When i get a kid next August, I can look up his grades and previous teacher and get some pretty good insight based on those two pieces of information.

Finals should never be a last ditch opportunity. For about 80% of my kids, their final average will be within a point or two of their grade on the exam. The "outliers" are very smart kids who elected not to do major assignments and the occasional kid who just doesn't test well.

6:09 PM  

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