Smart Alec | Abolish final examinations
Students wouldn’t lose sleep at semester’s end if professors used periodic assessments instead of finals
December 9, 2010, 5:12 am · Updated December 9, 2010, 12:00 am·
Festivus, the holiday designed by Seinfeld’s George Costanza to replace Christmas, features Feats of Strength (“not the Feats of Strength!”). At Penn, our holiday ritual is the Feat of Sleeplessness: not sleeping and being proud of it. It’s just one way college students hurt themselves. What makes it special is that our professors don’t just tolerate it; they mandate it. But this unhealthy state of affairs can and should change — if we decide to radically rethink assessment in education.
We know that not getting a good night’s sleep — eight hours or more each night — is bad for our health. A study published in the February 2010 Journal of Adolescent Health summarizes the consequences of sleep deprivation nicely: “poor academic performance and school absenteeism, drowsy-driving accidents, substance abuse, and emotion regulation difficulties.” In other words, by depriving yourself of sleep, you run the risk of dying by falling asleep at the wheel, overdosing on drugs, flying into a rage, failing an exam or — of course — all four at once.
But you already know this, gentle reader. And you’ll stay up for 24-hour stints anyway, because you procrastinated and that paper is due tomorrow, and hey, who really cares about that paper’s quality? You’ll do well enough. So what if your analysis is unsound? Professors who insist on real quality in papers must tread a painful and lonely road paved with the spiked complaints and demands of their entitled students. So they won’t care. You’ll be fine. And so the cycle goes on.
It is during finals time that the cycle orbits close to a black hole. (Let’s forget about the problem of sleep deprivation due to social activities for now). Come finals, every undergraduate class will require either an examination or a paper. These assessments will be spaced out well or poorly, based on the rules of chance. You could do four exams in two weeks — or two days.
This system is both unhealthy and unnecessary. Professors should eliminate finals altogether and replace them with continuous assessment. In large classes, clickers and other forms of automated grading remove the previously prohibitive labor involved in this enterprise. For small classes, regular response essays and multiple drafting deadlines for larger papers will ensure that undergraduates are polishing and refining ideas come the end of semester, not hurriedly slapping together first drafts. Moreover, by mandating lots of small deadlines rather than one big one, professors would be breeding good habits in their students — which is part of the point of college.
Abolish finals? “Heresy!” I hear you cry. But what on earth is the point of them? If the professor assesses material learned every week in a class and incorporates cumulative questions, why subject students to a two-hour supplemental test at the end? Likewise, if professors want a 30-page research paper, surely requiring an abstract and sources by one date, a first draft by another, then a second and so on will generate better papers? They don’t even need to read the initial drafts!
No one wins in the status quo. If the point of college is to learn, it seems outrageous to think that work produced under the conditions of sleep deprivation reflects true learning or, frankly, is good work. Professors who care about teaching lose. Professors who don’t care about teaching lose — they have that huge pile-up of grading twice a semester. And undergraduates lose their minds and their grades all at once.
We can improve undergraduate health and the quality of undergraduate education by being bold and implementing truly continuous assessment. Only then will incentives be adjusted such that study becomes a constant, steady presence, and undergraduates embrace a more restful lifestyle to cope with it. That way, we will all enjoy our Festivus dinner well-rested and — who knows? — maybe even happy.
Alec Webley is a College senior from Melbourne, Australia. His e-mail address is webley@theDP.com. Smart Alec appears on Thursdays.