Are Finals Too Final?

By Scott Brindiar

Finals week is less than one week away, and most students have at least one final that will be the difference between letter grades.

It is common practice for a student’s final grade to weigh heavily on his or her performance on the final exam, but it may not be the best pedagogical practice. In fact, some people suggest that students do not retain very much information this way at all.

Richard McEwing, an education professor at Youngstown State University, said that final exams are fair, but should be preceded by multiple assessments. He compares a test without class preparation to a football game without practices.

“It would be unfair [for a football player] to play the game on game day without practices leading to that game under the guidance of a coach,” McEwing said. “The player must be given every opportunity to be prepared for the game day challenge and be prepared to do well. … There should indeed be more assessments in a class than just a final, but it makes sense to have a final present. The final alone, therefore, does not determine if a student passes or fails.”

Zachary Vargo, a psychology instructor, says that traditional exams and finals do not actually help students learn as well as they could. He says student have a higher learning potential when under the Personal System of Instruction (PSI), a learning system developed by psychologist Fred S. Keller.

“In PSI, instead of going over a unit of material, then testing over that material, then simply moving on the next unit regardless of the earned grade, it would be more appropriate to require the student to attain what we call a ‘level of mastery’ in order to move on,” Vargo said. “If [students] do not attain the required level, they simply re-study the material and then re-test. Under this system, there is no pass/fail. The student may take as many attempts as is necessary to attain the necessary level of mastery, after which they will move on to the next unit.”

Several colleges have started using the PSI approach to education.  The approach has become popular for its ability to focus on individual student needs and learning styles, as well as allowing students to learn at their own pace. Students are also not penalized for failing, as they can continuously attempt to pass mastery exams.

McEwing and Vargo both agree that instructors must take the time to ensure that students are well prepared for exams, and that the final exams should not be the deciding factor in a student’s grade.