Are Finals Beneficial for Students?
January 30, 2018
Finals season is a stressful and frantic time for many students across Edina High School. Given all the negative feelings surrounding the tests, it begs the question: are they worth it? In the immediate aftermath of the first semester finals season, students are disagreeing over whether finals are a valuable part of the process or simply another cause for unnecessary stress. Compelling arguments exist for both.
Finals Are Effective and Warrant Use
Although many students dread the end of the semester and the battery of tests that it entails, finals don’t deserve their bad reputation, and are a crucial part of the educational process.
Edina High School’s first semester begins in early September and ends in late January; throughout this time, students are constantly presented with new material to learn. With such a long time between the beginning of the semester and finals week, it’s easy for students to forget the earliest topics covered in their classes. Busy students lack an incentive to review old material unless absolutely necessary. According to Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve, students can forget up to 90% of information they learn if they don’t actively review it. If students aren’t going to remember what they’ve been taught in the long term, there is no use teaching the material in the first place, and school would be a waste of time for everyone involved. Luckily, finals necessitate this review, and ensure that students continue to understand course content. Finals prevent students from forgetting important information and make the semester preceding them worth the time and effort.
Beyond the necessity of finals, the tests themselves are very effective devices. In a perfect world, every student would remember 100% of the content that was delivered to them, and every teacher would perfectly convey every fact and tidbit the curriculum could possibly include. However, educators have enough experience to understand that this kind of idealism isn’t realistic. Students miss class and material. Teachers don’t always reach every student. The curriculum has holes. Students need to understand the big-picture concepts of the course and the general ideas covered, and any further knowledge is extra. Luckily, finals are written so that students still have another opportunity to learn or relearn main ideas. Students tend to exaggerate the difficulty and obscurity of material being tested on finals, but this isn’t the case. For example, look at any practice AP History exam available online. The questions generally ask about topics and trends over time, not about exact details such as certain dates of historical events. These test are essentially checklists: “Do you or do you not understand the most important information taught in this course?” They are not arbitrarily difficult weapons used to punish students for not mastering every trivial fact.
Additionally, finals provide an incentive for students to continue working and learning through the semester. At best, finals provide a reason for students to revisit material after it’s been tested. At worst, they force students to cram the material until they understand it at least well enough to pass a final, which is still a net positive because reviewing a little bit is better than not reviewing at all. They’re often weighed heavier than a normal test, and while it’s unlikely that a final will completely hide the effects of a semester spent slacking, they can certainly help a student somewhat salvage a subpar grade.
Finals give students an opportunity to learn how to manage a large task without procrastinating until the last minute. Life is full of large projects that demand long-term planning to accomplish. By organizing and planning ahead of time, students can avoid mountains of stress. Finals provide invaluable practice for students’ planning and organization skills.
Although it’s popular to hate on finals and hype up their horribleness, they don’t deserve the bad rap. In the grand scheme of things, finals are just one week of tests. Finals help refresh and review information that might otherwise be forgotten, and make sure that all the hard work put in during the rest of the semester will be worth it in the long run.
Finals Are Overly Stressful and Only Promote Cramming
For many students, finals week is a maelstrom of stress, anxiety, caffeine, and late nights. This makes it understandably easy to get swept up unquestioningly in the grind. However, it’s critical to take a step back and ask if cumulative exams are really worth the toll they take on students. With this in mind, I contend that even beyond how much they hurt students physically and emotionally, finals not only fail to accurately measure knowledge, but are actually detrimental to students’ learning throughout the course.
The first major issue with finals is that they all happen in a short period of time. This forces students to study late into the night to prepare for seven final exams at once, all of which test all the material they’ve been exposed to throughout the year. This has a concrete negative impact on students’ health, as loss of sleep makes students physically and mentally exhausted.
Furthermore, anxiety and depression are certainly a major part of the lead-up to finals for many students. While testing is important in education, it should never be prioritized over the mental wellbeing of the student body. Plus, exhausted, anxious, and stressed students are much less likely to do well on a test than students who are in good health. In this way, the format of finals, by being all in one week, makes it much more difficult for students to succeed.
Excessive studying is motivated not only by the schedule, but also by the fact that finals test students on information that they haven’t been thinking about for months. When some throwaway factoid that was taught to students in the first week of September is brought up again in mid-January, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most students don’t remember it. It’s all well and good to say that students should review material that they learned earlier in the year. However, in reality it’s unrealistic that students will be able to remember every single thing that has been taught to them throughout the semester. The most important information will generally still be relevant to students in the middle of the year, so it will still be retained.
This exposes a deeper issue with finals: the fact that performance throughout the year is devalued. Students were already tested on the material from September back in September; there’s no need to test them again. In fact, having a final disincentivizes working hard throughout the year, as students who perform at a mediocre level throughout the year can do well in the class if they ace the final. This is clearly detrimental to students’ learning, as instead of absorbing material as it’s taught to them, students instead cram information just before the final, which is much less likely to result in true understanding.
A myopic focus on finals applies to teachers just as much as students. When teachers have to prepare students for a major cumulative exam at the end of the semester, it leads to them teaching to the test instead of teaching for comprehension. For example, instead of taking time in class to illustrate a concept in depth, teachers are more likely to introduce a concept and then ensure students have memorized it. This means students don’t understand the concept as well, but they will be able to recall it by rote from memory when taking an exam. Teachers ultimately want their students to do well on finals, but in too many cases, ensuring students do well trades off with true comprehension of the material.
A much better way to test students’ knowledge would be to assign a creative project in which students are required to apply what they’ve learned. Instead of students simply parroting information teachers have said, application of knowledge allows students to truly demonstrate understanding. Plus, this leads to natural review of material from earlier in the year, but at the student’s own pace. This means that information that is genuinely important for students to retain is being reviewed, but less important information doesn’t have to be needlessly relearned just for a final.
Schools should accept that students simply don’t remember everything taught to them; by prioritizing deep understanding of the most important concepts, schools can ensure that students get the best education possible. Unfortunately, finals are counterproductive to this goal, and harm students’ health and mental wellbeing. Finals undeniably fail to effectively measure knowledge, and with all the drawbacks that come along with them, they decidedly should not be used.
By moving away from finals and towards projects that allow students to apply their knowledge, students can learn more deeply and be in a better state of health, both mentally and physically, while they do so.