Final Answer

I gave up on final exams a few years ago. I wish I could say I did so for high-minded pedagogical reasons, but it was more exasperation. The use of heavily-weighted finals seemed to cause unnecessary stress for students and encourage the worst kind of bulimic learning: shove it in, puke it out. Sometimes, too, I would find cryptic acronyms written in the margins of the exams that were actually mnemonic devices. In other words, the student was so nervous that the facts would disappear from memory that he or she had to make a note in case the information vanished before the first page was turned!

In What the Best College Teacher's Do, the education writer Ken Bain recounted a study conducted by two physicists at Arizona State University. In the early 1980s these two professors wanted to know whether students really changed their understanding of motion after taking an introductory physics course. They used a carefully validated test to determine how students understood motion and gave it to four different sections (taught by four different professors). Here's what happened:

On the front side, the results surprised no one. Most students entered the course with an elementary, intuitive theory about the physical world, what the physicists called “a cross between Aristotelian and 14th-century impetus ideas.” In short, they did not think about motion the way Isaac Newton did, let alone like Richard Feynman. But that was before the students took introductory physics. Did the course change student thinking? Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists gave their examination once more and discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought.

Even many “A” students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they had interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.
In short, the students did not learn physics; they simply learned how to pass a physics course.
So what to use in place of exams? I've been using reflective essays. During the first week of class I have the students write what they know about the subject I will be teaching. They get full credit if they follow the directions and meet the length requirement (three pages). Then during finals week I have them reread their initial essay and write a new one that details how their thinking has changed.

To prepare them to write the essay, I hand out a list the concepts and ideas we've discussed in class and ask them to make a mark next to those things that intrigued, scandalized or interested them. If something doesn't ring a bell, I tell them to ignore it. I only want to know what stuck and is likely to be there a few years from now. Again, they get full credit if they follow the directions and make a sincere effort.

Among the questions they must address is whether the ideas we discussed have arisen outside of class. Many students say they haven't, but not a few of them tell me interesting stories of how ideas learned in class have been applied to their everyday experiences. For example, a concept I teach in Humanities 101 is Saint Augustine's notion of sin. Here's a response from a student's final paper:
The first day of my religion class, a student sitting next to me told me that he hates how the college makes students take a religion class. He then proceeded to tell me that he doesn’t believe in God. I was a little freaked out because I thought this was a really strong statement for this student to make, especially to a complete stranger.

Later in the semester I had another conversation with this student. He told me that he does not believe in God because there is so much evil in the world. He then asked me why I believe in God. At first I felt as though I had been slammed up against a brick wall. I tried explaining to him how I have felt the presence of God in my life, but came to realize that this was not a good way to convince an atheist that there is a
God.

All of the sudden, I remembered what we had learned in Humanities. I told him about St. Augustine’s idea of all good and no evil. I explained to him that we have a choice between a lower good and a higher good. As humans, we make mistakes when we choose the lower good over the higher good. He said that he had never heard of this idea of no evil. He had no arguments against it. I am not sure if this student is still an atheist or not, but what I do know is that I challenged his ideas.
It's really hard to measure this kind of stuff for academic assessment, but it's a lot more interesting to read than hastily scrawled acronyms.

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