Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Would killing my final exam make my class more memorable?

Posted 14 Aug 2015 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher Education Final Exams or Epic Finales

I like reading articles like this because they are pretty firmly aimed — as in wanting to shoot down — the way I teach. It is always good to hear challenges to your pedagogical methods.

There is kind of an Achilles’ heel to this article, and that is that it compares two very different teaching devices. The “epic finale” described in this article is not at all a replacement for a final exam: the two activities accomplish very different things. I give final exams because I think that it is important that students be forced to synthesize what they have learned and demonstrate that learning on a cumulative assessment. I use some multiple choice, but most of the questions on my exams are open-ended, often asking students to apply knowledge in new ways. Not all final exams are created equal! And a well-designed final exam can do something that no single activity can every do: provide a rough assessment of how well each student learned the course material and provide a pretty good assessment of how well the course is teaching key concepts.

Some of the stuff described here seems really unfair to students: putting them into stressful situations that do not really test whether they have grasped the conceptual material of the course just to have an “experience” that might lead to further reflection on course materials (although as long as these “finales” are low stakes — see below — then this is less of an issue). But even the idea of simply giving the final exam at some other time seems potentially problematic, especially if students have to find extra time to take the exam as well as participate in a “finale”.

That said I do like the idea of some end-of-class experience that leaves students feeling excited about the course content. Interestingly this professor is lobbying for using the Final Exam week for this kind of “finale”, I assume because this is the biggest single block of time afforded to his courses. Luckily at Pratt — where all classes are on the once-a-week studio schedule — I have three hours every week in order to have students working on larger projects. We do presentations and longer-term projects because we have the time to do so already built into our class schedules: this is an aspect of teaching at a studio-based school that I really like.

I like the idea that the class ends with something that is low stakes but culminating (if not cumulative). I also like his five points of low stakes, collaboration, something new, mystery, and awesomeness. I try to make a lot of the weekly activities that I have students do fit most if not all of these characteristics, so I could see how a “finale” might end up being a longer-form version of these kinds of activities.


A Minor Post, Assessment Methods, Higher Education, Teaching

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