Inadequate Examinations

What do final exams teach us anyway?

Only in universities do finals count for such a large percentage of a final grade--50, 60, sometimes even 100 percent. Of course, in many instances this is a wonderful circumstance. Should we inadveretently not attend lecture or do the reading for a class, reading period provides a catch-up time. In fact, with the final determining such a large percentage of our grade and almost two weeks designated as catch-up time, we are encouraged to wait until the last minute.

How realistic is this situation for the real world? In almost any job, does evaluation over a mere three hours determine the value of your effort over half a year?

In the world of entertainment media, a few days does make a difference. Prime time television shows have sweeps week where they all compete against each other will big stars to boost their ratings.

This event does occur near the end of the season, but the ratings garnered from that week certainly do not determine whether a show will appear the next season.


Hollywood movies are often rated by how much money the movie grosses the first week at the box office. But this is not at all similar to final exams since it occurs at the beginning of a movie's showing. The first week is taken as an indication of how well the movie will perform and how effective the advertising was; by contrast, final exams are an indication of total performance.

College is the only place where the last two weeks of your time determine your effort for the year. But not only is the time factor of final exams flawed, but the composition of exams is equally at fault. How can three hours test the amount of information amassed during a semester? If we were given a blank blue book and told to write down three hours worth of material from the class, most people would be able to do it, and no one would write down the same things.

The three hours of a final exam test very specific pieces of information and many times leave out important concepts. So a final exam also is a skewed test since it cannot incorporate the entire class.

If the final exam is automatically skewed, then it is simply not a good final indicator for a class. The final exam should be weighted less than 50 percent; it is not a good enough indicator to determine so much of a final grade. The other parts of the class, papers and midterms, should then count for a larger percentage of a grade. At least in this system, grading is spread over several days.

It is true that final exams have one advantage--if a student only sees the light at the end of the semester, he or she can still succeed in the class. But this cannot occur very often since the beginning of a class usually is the foundation for concepts learned at the end of a class. And if a student suddenly improves astronomically, his or her final can count for more.

Perhaps this is just nostalgia for the good old days of high school. Or a certain yearning to be able to enjoy the nicer weather (when it actually appears). Ultimately, our transcripts for four years are determined by only eight weeks of our time here. This situation not only encourages us to procrastinate, but also it is not a real indicator of our performance here.

Tanya Dutta's column will resume in the fall.