Final exams: Marking up the wrong tree

By in Opinions

CHELSEA POWRIE

Culture Editor

A student’s performance on their final exam should be an accurate representation of what they learned in that course. Too often however, it is not.

The question is, would standardizing the weight of final exams improve the career prospects of University of Saskatchewan graduates?

I propose 40 per cent finals across the board, with the remaining mark being comprised of two midterms and assignments of varying weights. Midterms are valuable for students, as they provide feedback on performance at that point. Multiple midterms are painful, yes, but they’re useful checkpoints to keep students engaged and committed.

Likewise, homework serves the same purpose, and the process of completing it brings about a deeper learning process than cramming. In my experience, skills gained completing assignments are far more likely to be retained in the long term than those hectically practiced at the last minute.

ExamsLet’s be honest — we’ve all written exams that we probably shouldn’t have passed. We’ve stayed up all night reading through every lecture slide, frantically taking notes and gulping Code Red Mountain Dew. We’ve compressed the material down to a single page and then attempted to memorize it, feverishly flipping through flashcards until the last possible second in the hallway outside of the exam room. And — without fail — we’ve checked our marks a few weeks later to see if we failed, only to find that we actually did pretty well.

The problem with this kind of learning is that it doesn’t last. Two weeks later, you couldn’t pass that test again if your life depended on it. But you’ve still got that mark on your transcript which is supposed to tell the world that you’ve mastered at least some percentage of the course’s content.

Final exams come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the take-home essay worth 20 per cent to the monstrous three hour ordeal riddled with trick questions and problems you swear the professor never covered. Meanwhile, both ends of the spectrum are expected to be properly indicative of a student’s grasp of the content.

As it stands, a bachelor’s degree gained from the U of S can mean a lot of different things when it is broken down into its individual courses. At the end of the four or so years, no matter what the percentage of each of your finals was worth, you earn a degree.

But there are still so many different ways of assigning grades among colleges and courses. Your degree could stand for years of dedicating yourself and forgoing a social life or it could stand for years of skipping class to sleep off hangovers and cramming effectively at the last minute.

With standardized exams, if an employer were to see a U of S graduate’s resume, they would know that it stood for a rigorous standard of education. They could rely on the knowledge that an applicant’s degree represented a strong level of comprehension in that field.

High percentage finals provide the opportunity for laziness. Every student has felt the temptation to slack off, especially in the aftermath of the rigid attendance taking in high school. Having a heavily-weighted final means someone could pass a course they barely attended simply by cramming. On the other hand, finals are still important and they shouldn’t be worth too little — they are, after all, at the end of the course and they should confirm that the student has adequately learned the course content.

Yes, this sounds like more work, since many courses don’t currently adhere to this level of organization. But isn’t it better to be constantly obligated to work and learn because of due dates and multiple tests than to leave it all up to your own motivation? We would get more out of our courses, we’d go into our finals more prepared and we could stop spending so much money on caffeine.

If the percentage that finals were worth was standardized, an undergraduate degree from the U of S would begin to mean something more than it currently does. As it stands, employers can’t know what kind of employee they’re getting — steadfast and studious or lazy and lucky? Final exams should be used to gauge the knowledge gained over an effectively managed course and should not be an opportunity for last minute salvation.

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  • Jim

    Nice idea in theory, but it will never happen.

    For one, how do you standardize exams over two completely different undergraduate programs? For example, the reason that a law exam is worth 100% is because it tests the student’s ability to reach a proper legal analysis in a short period of time, which is something very appealing to employers.

    Likewise, how can you compare sociology with chemistry? Completely different skill sets at play demanding a completely different weighting of course work and exams.

    Likewise, there are also important writing skills that are also weighted very heavily and should be.

    In any program, exams matter because they test the student’s ability to apply their knowledge and skills in a short period of time. This skill matters more to employers than the ability to do term work.

    If you are good enough to slack through class and still do better than the person who attended class religiously, well, you are just smarter than they are. Again, employers are looking for people who can get the most done in the least amount of time. They don’t care if you will work 12 hours to get a project done if a more capable “slacker” can get it done in 3. A smart employer will take the person who can get the same thing done better with less effort every time.

    Quite simply, your idea is not sufficiently justified and it certainly betrays a lack of knowledge about what employers are actually looking for.

    Then there is the professor’s right to determine how they will grade their own course. Then you are going up against faculty.

    To be certain, there are merits to your idea (there are multiple skills a person needs in the workplace depending on their career path that exams cannot accomodate). However, it just is a very messy proposition that would never be implemented. You are going against various colleges, departments, and faculty, none of whom would find a consensus.

  • Bigwally

    If this is actually about learning, you should be talking about eliminating final exams altogether. If this is in fact about “job training,” you should probably be attending a vocational college like Sask Polytechnic instead.

  • HM

    Every single program at the U of S is different. Standardizing final exams would just make learning so much more ineffective for many students. Certain subjects simply do not benefit from a final exam and a final project or additional paper is a much more productive way to measure a student’s overall success in the class.

  • TF

    Standardizing final exams is not the way to go if you ask me. As an educator myself I find that final exams are not an accurate representation of what a student is capable of in all cases. There are some students that do well in exams, and some who may study very little and still obtain high marks, then there are also students who study night after night and work hard to get a passing grade on an exam. Final exams should be done away with in certain cases. I am not going to state what exams should or should not be in place because I do not have the expertise in order to do so but in my undergraduate experience for both of my degrees I took more away from the classes that I did not have final exams in, than those that I sat and crammed the information into my head in order to meet a degree requirement. Standardizing the weight of a final exam does not level the worth of a degree! If I can write and essay better than a multiple choice exam I may have gotten a final average of say 90% when writing all essay finals, versus a 60% final average if I had only wrote multiple choice finals.

  • Agreed with the other commentors; a nifty idea in theory, impossible to actually do- the variation in types of courses and the work involved in these aforementioned courses is quite simply too high to try and standard format all of them to fit one mold.

  • Manda

    This opinion seems to come from someone who has not experience the breadth of classes the University of Saskatchewan has to offer (specially the upper year 3-400 level). Standardized final exams are just unfeasible and ridiculous.