Making the Most of Finals

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And so it begins—the final stretch. Our notebooks are full, textbooks highlighted, novels and short stories filled with marginalia, and our brains are exhausted. We have already come so far, and yet we are just at the starting line of the dreaded race that university scholars all seem united in their disdain for: finals week.

For a long time I failed to see the point of final exams. After a demanding semester, why bother with yet another test that will inevitably lead to stress, anxiety, and perhaps even contempt for the course or the professor?

Let’s think back to the beginning of the semester. We have just been handed our course syllabi, and naturally we flip through to see the schedule of assessments. We read: two papers, one midterm, one final. Great! That doesn’t seem too bad. Less is more, right? Well, unfortunately, this operating logic is all wrong. It is in fact to the student’s benefit to have the maximum amount of tests, quizzes, and essays possible, no matter which way we cut it, especially when final exams are considered.

This is all to say that finals, unfairly, get a bad rap. In order to lift the veil and (hopefully) lessen our frustration with exam week, we ought to consider the facts. Learning-science research suggests that pedagogically, cumulative tests are one of the best tools to enhance our learning.

In a comprehensive paper titled “How Students Learn—and How We Can Help Them” from the department of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, John Kihlstrom notes that the primary key to student learning is understanding that we best learn progressively—in other words, cumulatively. When we are able to build new knowledge atop old, we are far more likely to be able to relate concepts and ideas—the basis for what is known as the organization principle of memory. This allows for a meaningful connection that enhances our memory’s framework to best solidify what we already know and to prepare our expectations for what we are trying currently to learn.

Following this reasoning, we can more easily understand the educational merit of the cumulative final. Kihlstrom writes: “A cumulative final exam forces students to review all the material covered in the course, and that review in and of itself enhances learning. Plus, it’s an opportunity for the student to put the whole course together, to connect material.”

The science is undeniable: testing promotes learning. Frequent quizzes and exams are our best aids to enhance our memory, and once we, as students, understand and accept this, we can approach them with a deeper intrinsic motivation (that is, if we, I hope and assume, are all scholars with a strong passion for intellectual growth).

Alas, if we are to be successful in this endeavor, we can’t pick up the reins now. Our challenge starts at the beginning of each semester, from our first day’s reading assignment to the last chapter quiz, and if we haven’t been attentive throughout the course, it doesn’t bode well for final exam preparation. So perhaps the lesson is if we have failed in the task this time around, we know, come spring, just what we ought to be doing right off the bat.

One semester’s grades aren’t everything, and the important message is to know how we can improve in practical ways. Each homework assignment, each class lecture, each discussion, no matter how trivial the day’s curricula may seem to you, are all moments that we can use to our advantage—the more we pay attention to the foundations laid in the beginning of our course, the better prepared we will be to critically think when the challenge comes our way.

It is natural to harbor dislike for finals week, but I encourage us all to see the bigger situation at work here. As it happens, final exams aren’t simply assessments, but rather the pinnacle of our opportunities to genuinely learn and retain material. Let us then go about our studies with this in mind: rather than arduously cramming and voicing our abhorrence for cumulative exams, let’s see them for what they’re really worth—a lucky chance to cash in on why we’re here, to learn to the best of our abilities.

Featured Image by Julie Orenstein