Final exams shouldn’t be cumulative

Break the information up


Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By Jacob Russian, Collegian Columnist

Finals are right around the corner for students at the University of Massachusetts. Following a week-long Thanksgiving break, students returned to school to face a barrage of final papers, assignments and exams.

While college students have faced stressful exam periods for decades, it is important to question the way in which we evaluate students at the end of a semester, particularly with respect to cumulative exams. Cumulative final exams force students to review information taught from the beginning of September through the end of classes in December, a task that can become extremely overwhelming given the number of classes students tend to take. In many ways, cumulative final exams require students to memorize the information they’ve learned for multiple classes and be tested on those subjects within a single week — not to mention that some students may have multiple cumulative exams on the same day. It is unrealistic to expect students to retain a semester’s worth of information for numerous classes and subsequently test them on these topics in such a short period of time.

Many classes at UMass implement midterm exams, and sometimes two or more of them, in order to assess student’s learning throughout the semester. I feel that these assessments are valuable to both students and instructors, as students can gauge their retention of the information and instructors can evaluate the methods they use to teach. It’s often much easier to prepare for midterm exams, since they are focused more narrowly on specific topics rather than an entire semester’s worth of material. In this way, an honest appraisal can be made of a student’s understanding of the topics because the material has been freshly taught and reviewed.

However, in the case of cumulative final exams, a student may not perform as well during testing on the same information, given that there is more to cover. Why are the results of a midterm exam not enough of an indicator of what a student has learned? Why is the measure of understanding based on being able to recall information from months’ worth of classes? Final exams should delve into the lessons following the last midterm exam of a class. It seems completely unrealistic that a student should be required to memorize all the information taught over months of classes for an average of about five courses a semester. While I do understand the motivation of instructors to assess whether their course created lasting retention in students, every single class cannot effectively test for this. Students risk experiencing extreme duress as they attempt to cram all their notes into a single week of studying.

Cumulative final exams can be seen as unrealistic, but it also may also be unhealthy for students overall. Universities have consistently put an emphasis on final exam periods being both brief and overly intense. It is almost as though, just as classes end, students are swept up into a whirlwind of tasks to complete before going home for winter break. These expectations simply do not allow students to engage in meaningful and thorough work, especially as they scramble to ensure all their assignments are completed. Some students are also unable to focus solely on academics during this challenging time period due to the fact that they may be involved in extracurricular activities or work responsibilities. To these students, there are only so many hours in the day, and the pressure to remember everything they’ve learned over the past few months is unfair.

Professors at UMass should seriously consider whether cumulative final exams are in the best interest of their students. While I am not arguing that final exams should be done away with altogether, we must adjust how students are evaluated for a course’s material. It is important to be a dutiful and dedicated student, but there are expectations that cannot always be met by individuals trying to ensure they have accomplished everything asked of them.

Jake Russian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]