Final Exams

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There’s, well, a touch of finality that goes with those dreaded “Final Exams.” In our church services, the end of the mass finds the priest exclaiming, “The Mass is ended. Go In Peace.” Unfortunately, the final that all to commonly marks the end of the quarter, trimester or semester bring anything but peace.

Indeed finals come in all shapes and sizes. Our French teacher evaluates mini stories each student must recite in French for the entire class to hear, absorb and critique. Many ask questions to stall the one presenter hoping they will live one more day before having to take their trip to the front that reminds all to many of the lonely walk to the stocks supposed witches may have endured hundreds of year ago.

Our video production class, on the other hand, finds students pulling together instead of prolonging the agony of the lone speaker at the front of the class. Indeed, they have their projects hosting more receptive actors who have the luxury of scripts, rehearsals, props as well as the company of fellow thespians who actually enjoy the stage when the camera is rolling their way.

Our art teacher demands sculptures or paintings, while wood shop wants wooden products that will make all viewers feel the sacrifice of a noble tree was worth its harvest. English teachers let a thoughtful literary review suffice and represent the author hoping for a good grade, while math and science teachers can forewarn students of upcoming finals that will serve as a third or more of their total grade bringing chills to some of our brightest test-takers.

But students all too often feel the most dreaded finals are those “cumulative” final exams. Lighter in the first quarter, but growing denser with each passing week, these cumulative final exams have earned few friends among the student population where the routine of cramming for the next test evolves swiftly as students close one chapter and move to new topic that seem completely unrelated to the most recent test.

But while students may disapprove, cumulative exams serve well those who believe in the importance mastery of skills, subjects and content. It is based on the premise that what we teach is taught for a good reason, even if students may question the subject’s relevance. Furthermore, cumulative tests are based on the assumption that students will go through the stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy and work towards stages like analysis and synthesis even though some students may wish they could simply memorize some vocabulary, prepare for a few chapter ending review questions and ultimately take a short multiple choice final that leaves the first 25 percent of the grade completely to chance.

While the types, formats and weights of final exam vary widely, the primary stated reason in our building is to prepare students for college. Many staff believe that colleges will all too often base nearly all the semester grade upon a single final exam or perhaps a mid-term and final. We want our students to learn to deal with finals, test anxiety and test preparation as well as our own subject area.

Just as students may suffer more in certain final exam settings than in others, some faculty find a student’s final may cause them more work as a form of “payback” for having the audacity to test a student. For example, after history and science exams are taken, the sound of Scantron cards being scored electronically while the teacher checks their mail, fill their coffee cup and relieve themselves of the last two cups they ingested while proctoring their tests.

I feel the most compassion for the English teacher intent upon reading the Blue Books of perhaps 120 students: all of whom had a essay that now needs to be read, digested and returned with a grade of some sort. I know some essays will make the process rewarding for the teacher. Others will wonder which teacher the student had last year who apparently failed to instill many of the writing skills they tried so hard to build upon what may seem like a wobbly foundation.

I must confide I knew a professor who was also the dean of a college. He casually confided to me that he bases his entire grade upon one lone final exam for each student. His students would submit a Blue Book addressing one comprehensive theme addressed in the directions. He proceeded to read only the first page or two. He would then record a letter grade at the front, but only telling students that he’s read thousands of papers, know the difference between demonstrated mastery of skills and content knowledge from his class and can distinguish it from the idle ramblings of someone who paid little attention to the information he taught in his classes.

Yet, sometimes he finds may have overlooked some pertinent thoughts and rendered an unjust grade. He announced to his students that he will agree to meet with any student who disagrees with the final exam grade and can highlight points in the Blue Book that were deserving of a better grade. With this forewarning, he assumes that if his subjective and abbreviated evaluation missed the mark somehow, he was glad to give students the chance to correct the injustice — although he never told his students that only the beginning of their Blue Book responses would bear the responsibility of conveying a student’s mastery of all major points in his class.

Yes, final exams for all their many and varied forms, formats, and weights for the final grade bring anything but peace of mind until long after grades have been posted. To alleviate this, I am partial to teachers who have an “out” clause of one style of another. For example, a famed Montana lecturer at the University of Montana had to teach in the large theater/auditorium to fit in the 700 or more students wanting to take the one Montana History class he taught each spring. Students were told that there would be two tests: a midterm and semester final. If students were happy with their midterm grades from that first test, they could accept that grade and avoid the anguish of a second.

The alternative is the professor who states there are 3-5 exams all of equal weight. Students can drop their lowest test grade from the mix. It raises the status of each exam to that of a final exam. As a counselor, perhaps it is the forgiving nature of that grading format that relieves the student of any undue stress while still demanding accountability for lessons learned in the course that so impresses me.

Finals are a fact of life. High schools want to blame their need to do so on the colleges who will force them upon when they move on to the college scene. It leaves us to wonder how colleges could justify final exams and grades based upon them if a particular program of study that serves as a path to career area that does not require bar exams, board exams, licensing exams or some other demonstration of competence for those joining their ranks. But with the high cost of colleges capturing the attention of students, students will have little time to wonder who colleges can blame for their tendency to make final exams a major part of so many college courses now being offered.

In the meantime, students will be well advised to search the bookshelves of Amazon and other book vendors who specialize in study guides that will help students learn systems that will make improve one’s ability to truly manifest the wide array of skills they would have liked to have shown off had only the right questions made if to the pages of the final exam. For those students who had the right answers but were asked the wrong questions, they will just need to take the prompt of our priest and leave the final exam the serenity of knowing they won’t have another final exam until they reach one semester closer to their own graduation.

Follow Robert McClory:

2010 Finalist for School Counselor of the Year (American School Counselor Association)

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