STAFF: A final word on semester finals … What’s working now is not working.

AP Calculus teachers John Paul Shore teaches his 6th hour AB class how to interpret derivative graphs. “[Semester finals] are a culmination of what students have mastered, what they still need to know, and what they haven’t quite figured out yet … it’s a big guideline to see where we’re at as a class, as an individual,” Shore said. Photo by Vivian La.

The scene is all too-familiar — the endless clicking of keyboards, an unhealthy amount of caffeine, the flipping of flashcard after flashcard, furious scribbles of equations, and the grogginess of sleep deprivation — all are characteristics of the panicked frenzy that is finals week. Students stretch themselves thin for a week of successive 1.5-hour exams that could potentially mean the difference between passing and failing. The stakes have never been higher.

Semester finals are an expected academic ritual every year, creating a pit of dread for all students who must pass this final hurdle before an extended holiday break. Their main purpose, as we’ve been told for years and years, is to gauge how much a student has learned and retained over the course. This anxiety-inducing test that often makes or breaks a student’s grade is a universal stressor that is a hallmark of academics all around the world. We’ve come to accept the reputation of finals week as a brutal test of our mental strength and ability to stay up in order to study last minute. But it does not have to always be this way. 

Why do we always take finals at the end of an academic semester and what benefit does it serve to both the student and educator? The short answer is that it measures students’ retention of knowledge over the course of the semester. However, the question of how effective a single high-stakes test given on the very last week of the semester can accurately reflect that intended purpose is debatable.

The reality of exams with this much importance is that it reveals who did or did not spend the time reviewing the material — less about who had the most academic progress in the class over the course of a semester. Students cram, typically the weekend before, for a week of successive tests only to pass the class, not to reflect on their understanding of the content learned over the past semester. While some of the responsibility falls on the student to study and manage their time well, it is the initial responsibility of the educator to give students the opportunity to succeed and to have a final that is not just going through the motions of what was taught months ago.

On the other hand, a weighted semester exam has the potential to boost a student’s grade and serve as a much-needed chance to bring that “C+” up to a “B.” It serves as a final opportunity to end on a positive note. The only detriment is that it could work in the opposite direction as well. This is another drawback of finals — having spent the majority of a semester at a consistent percentage that might be only slightly borderline, a single exam could result in a final grade that is 1% short of an “A.” 

Poll based on a cross-section of East students

The general principle of education is that learning is a gradual process that takes time and well-intended effort. But the “gamble” that students play each year when they enter numbers and decimals into a final grade calculator seems to flip this principle on its head. The dismay felt when the message from the grade calculator reads, “You will need to score at least 95% on your final to get an 89.6% overall” is all too-familiar. With a single semester exam often making up 15 to 20% of the student’s final grade, our gradual learning process becomes nonexistent as students scramble to recall a certain mathematical concept from the third week of school.

With exam weights and percentages, there isn’t consistency among departments, calling into question why a certain subject’s final is deemed more important than another. District policy states that no final can exceed 20% of a student’s final grade, but departments within the building can set their own percentages, as long as course percentages between OHS and OE stay the same. For example, all social studies finals are worth 10%, but in math, a geometry final is 15% of the final grade. With these classes, the final is typically a long multiple choice test. However, in english classes, the final is more often than not a written reflection that ranges from 15-20% of the final grade. Having uniform weights for finals can be the first step towards improving their effectiveness because students won’t be prioritizing one subject over another. And if exam weights are more consistent, teachers can be allowed more freedom with the structure of their final which can be more beneficial to students.

And because the timing of these exams takes place towards the tail-end of the semester, there is little time for meaningful reflection on the grade you receive. There is no opportunity to receive feedback, and if there is, there is little incentive to do so anyway. In addition, there aren’t departmental policies at East requiring teachers to give feedback to students. More often than not, students simply accept the letter grade they receive without a second thought, and the information we cram a few days leading up to the dreaded exam is simply forgotten within a few days into the break. Students are assessed on retention, but when that retention isn’t there, there’s no effort or process in place to fix the issue. 

The academic world is full of traditional methods that have not changed in decades, such as the purpose of homework, the unavoidable rote memorization of facts, and the dreaded final exam. As with other modern changes we have made to improve our education system, we can address the reasoning behind giving a final to mark the end of an academic semester. Finals do not have to be given simply because it’s what’s always done. Evaluating the reasons for why a final is needed can be more beneficial to the students, the teacher that grades them, and our idea of education in the long run. The notion that teachers give semester finals because of a sense of necessity or because it’s the default for any class needs to be re-evaluated.

Evaluating the reasons for why a final is needed can be more beneficial to the students, the teacher that grades them, and our idea of education in the long run.

That being said, aligning the course objectives with a well-designed exam can benefit students despite the high stress levels. In some cases, a high-stakes final is an accurate form of preparation for another future high-stakes assessment required in, for example, the medical field. Additionally, addressing this idea of learning being gradual, a semester’s final grade can be the product of a series of smaller assignments instead of cramming all necessary information into a two hour exam. At the University of Indiana, a history professor had students create and present detailed posters of medieval history in a timeline format that was open to the public and their peers, encouraging maximum effort and creativity. Students had to present information to peers. Additionally, research by Harvard University has shown how peer-to-peer instruction has been proven to reinforce individual learning for both students. Teaching requires thorough understanding and learning from a peer can make the material more understandable. This concept can be applied to finals with ideas like projects or presentations, not just in history.

Beginning this year, East’s world language department has elected to remove any notion of a weighted semester final and instead assign a regular skills test that is part of the student’s overall skills grade. This is just one way that teachers and departments are working to improve the idea of finals and redefine what their goals ultimately are with a semester exam.

In the end, certain approaches work for certain courses or departments, such as in Mr. Brogan’s chemistry classes where instead of a traditional multiple choice exam that covers the entirety of that semester’s material, students conduct a lab experiment over the course of several weeks to identify a mystery substance. The “final” is a cohesive presentation that is more focused on the scientific procedure and application of learned concepts.

Students undergo plenty of stress throughout the rest of the school year, and changing the long-held norm of sleepless nights, an abundance of caffeine, and the heart-sinking feeling of being one percentage point from the next grade letter can positively impact students in the long run. Final exams are an unavoidable practice in academics, and they will not be going away any time in the near future. However, there are ways to go about making them as effective and stress-free as possible. The end of the semester does not have to be met with dread or end on a somber note. But making the right changes to this process can result in a more worthwhile and meaningful ending to the term.

While this staff editorial represents the views & opinions of the editorial board for the Howl, this staff editorial was written by Vivian La, the Opinion Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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