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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 07/17/2010

Harvard profs dropping final exams

By Valerie Strauss

Final exams are probably not anybody’s primary concern at the moment, but it is worth noting that the July-August edition of Harvard Magazine reports that many Harvard professors will no longer routinely require final exams.

It turns out that Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted on this policy a few months ago, according to the magazine article. The arts and sciences faculty -- of which there are more than 1,000, including dozens of Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners -- teach in Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Division of Continuing Education.

For decades, professors who chose not to give a final exam were required to submit a form to opt out. Now, professors will have to file a specific request to give a final.

The magazine said that Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris is already predicting that Harvard will shorten the academic calendar by a day or two in response to the eased testing burden, but, in fact, final exams have been “going the way of the dodo” for years.

Harris told the faculty that of 1,137 undergraduate-level courses this spring term, 259 scheduled finals -- the lowest number since 2002, when 200 fewer courses were offered. For the more than 500 graduate-level courses offered, 14 had finals, he reported.

What does this all mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing.

James Engell, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature, told the faculty at the spring meeting that he worried about how professors are assessing students and that a long final paper is not equivalent to a final exam.

Another professor said the trend was not caused by any pedagogical imperative but rather was correlated to the attendance of professors in their own classes in May and a new policy that requires professors to proctor their own exams.

National Review has a piece by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Mickey Muldoon -- both Harvard graduates, classes of 1965 and 2007, respectively -- arguing that “Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience.”

They note that some educators believe that there are other ways to assess student learning -- papers, projects, etc. -- than with a cumulative final exam, but they aren’t buying it. They are concerned, they say, that this is happening at Harvard not only because it is their alma mater but because Harvard is influential in higher education.

So, even though it is the middle of July, let's talk about final exams anyway. Are they necessary? Are they simply tedious?

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 17, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Learning  | Tags:  FAS and harvard, final exams, final papers, harvard college, harvard drops final exams, harvard university  
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At the secondary level, final exams are a good measure of cumulative learning; however, they are a sham in terms of grades. In my experience, high school finals can't be worth more than 20% of a student's grade. At most a failing final exam score may result in a drop of one letter grade. For most students the final exam merely decides between a plus or a minus on the course grade that they had prior to the final. Of course final exam grades do have more weight on the grade of a student who has been performing poorly all semester; for them the final can mean passing or failing the class. While final exams may be a good assessment of learning, the assessment is negligible in terms of grades and therefore unnecessary since grades are the ultimate indicator of how well a student has done in a class.

Posted by: stevendphoto | July 17, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

I'm finding at both the high school and undergraduate level, I am putting more stock in on-demand tests as opposed to papers and projects in order to be evaluate what the students can do on their own with what they've learned. Students have no problem handing in something that somebody else has done for them and telling you with a straight face that "they got a little help" with the assignment. It is so contentious to accuse plagiarism, even when you have the perpetrator caught "dead to rights" that I'd rather evaluate students on what they can do on demand. One can do evaluate presentations and various performance tasks in smaller classes, but in larger classes, you simply don't have time in a semester to do more than a mid-term and a final on-demand examination.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | July 17, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

One of the best electrical engineering professors I've ever had, a Dr. Peter D. Scott, chose not only to always give us a final, but a cumulative one at that. Some students would invariably protest, arguing that they'd already been tested on the material previously, but Prof Scott explained his rationale as follows: A cumulative final forces students to review the entire course in its entirety with all the segments in context. I have to agree wholeheartedly. Studying for such finals was a very good learning experience in and of itself.

I find it baffling that everyone involved with education "theory" views tests and exams as mere "assessments" and nothing else.

Posted by: physicsteacher | July 17, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

At the undergrad level there are few assessments and finals may be justified; however, at the secondary level students are being formally assessed almost daily. I know the abilities of my students. I have been reading their written responses all semester long. They have completed a research paper that has forced them to utilize the skills that I have been scaffolding all semester. I used this year and while I have some philosophical qualms with it it made policing plagiarism much easier. What is a mostly multiple choice test at the end of the semester going to prove? I could probably estimate what my students would score on a final exam. It's pretty much just going through the motions. If they didn't learn it during the semester, cramming for a final isn't really going to give them any deep learning experiences. It should not be a surprise that folks view "tests and exams as mere assessments and nothing else" (physicsteacher). Teaching and learning has been reduced to below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. That's not theory; it's practice. Another multiple choice test is not what we need at the end of the year.

Posted by: stevendphoto | July 17, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

"Students have no problem handing in something that somebody else has done for them and telling you with a straight face that 'they got a little help' with the assignment."

That's dishonest. On the other hand, a professor who "got a little help" from an exam proctor--or who turned the entire class over to his graduate assistant, including teaching, proctoring exams, and grading them--is considered a good professor because he finds time for a lot of research and writing.

Someone explain the difference, please. And you'll notice the change at Harvard came about when professors were told they would have to proctor their own exams.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 17, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't this have something to do with the pressure to publish that the college profs have? My experience has been that college profs care a lot less about "teaching" than public school teachers do. In fact, their real job seems to be research.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 17, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

"Harris told the faculty that of 1,137 undergraduate-level courses this spring term, 259 scheduled finals..."

James Engell, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature, told the faculty at the spring meeting that he worried about how professors are assessing students and that a long final paper is not equivalent to a final exam.
I would be worried also and wonder how teachers can grade students without exams in undergraduate classes.

The idea of an in class exam was that everyone had a level playing field where there were less questions for teachers of partiality. Exams required thought and understanding of the subject.

With the high amount of cheating that is going on it is hard to conceive that Harvard has been shifting away from in class exams.

Why even bother to hold classes at Harvard? Hand out the required projects at the beginning of the course and tell the students to mail in their projects.

The projects will only simply reflect what the students have learned on their own and not necessarily anything that could or has been taught in classes.

To be honest I never did have much of a great opinion of Harvard and the other elite and expensive schools. These schools are excellent for undergraduates that obtain full scholarships to attend, but are of dubious value if you have to pay a great deal.

Far better to go to a less expensive school since learning to such a large extent is so heavily dependent upon the work of the individual student.

I can see that Harvard now agrees with this idea and that the reality is that there is not much value in what teachers teach at Harvard in the class room since there is no need to measure what students have learned from these teachers.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 17, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

So, why did I have to take my Boards exam "final" in order to get a medical license ? And why do lawyers take their Bar "final" and accountants their CPA "final" ?

These Harvard profs are lazy morons.

Posted by: dan1138 | July 18, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

As a secondary math teacher A final exam rarely informs me differently about what a student knows and can do. If a student's average was 73% before the Final, their Final Exam grade would be 73%.

Because my customers are not only parents and students but the teachers my students will have, if final exams in college receded in importance I would curtail administering them. Yet, as long as their are Bar exams, CPA exams, GRE's, Professional Engineer exams, Police Academy exams, Air Force Officer Qualifying Tests, etc., I will administer comprehensive exams.

Posted by: pdfordiii | July 18, 2010 2:11 AM | Report abuse

While teacher-made finals may not be the best way to assess student progress, I doubt the professors at Harvard have found a better way. I rather suspect that many prefer to work on their research rather than go through the grind of making, giving, and correcting finals. Formative assessments can tell you what your students know, but I don't think they should be used to determine grades.

Posted by: DrDougGreen | July 18, 2010 3:11 AM | Report abuse

I think we are all missing the psycho/social importance of final exams in college. So much would be lost without finals: that final chance to pull an all-nighter with that cute guy or girl in your class; the comraderie of moaning endlessly about the upcoming exam week; the bacchanalian partying when it is over. Finals make you a band of brothers (and sisters). You've been through the wars together, and you were victorious! God, there is nothing like it!

Posted by: nvlheum | July 18, 2010 5:45 AM | Report abuse

I doubt that Harvard is unique in this regards. (BTW, Harvard is not as influential as it thinks it is in higher ed, esp. in regards to teaching practice, as it thinks it is. It is mostly influential in elite newspapers and journals, many of whose professional staff graduated from there). Anyway, it seems as if many of the commenters here know very little about testing at the college level.

First, multiple choice tests are the worst kind of assessment instruments to judge deep knowledge. Why would you want to administer such a test in an upper division college course (perhaps a case could be made for lower division where you are testing student on the foundations of the discipline)?

Second, to put it bluntly, today's students can't write, and I don't mean they can't construct sentences and arugments -- they literally can't write. Their penmanship stinks becasue they are on computers all the time and thus trying to give an essay exam is, for the professor, more an exercise in paleography than anything else. But allowing them to write the final on a computer during a proctored exam and submitting it electronically would invite cheating.

Third, years of K-12 classes teaching to the test means today;s students whine and moan about not getting "study guides" or receiving the questions in advance (not that this helps). High stakes testing and NCLB have ruined education and what is meant by comprehensive knowledge of a discipline. Years ago, I read English at Cambridge. One final exam question was something on the order of: "Shakespeare was more poet than dramatist: Discuss." I can just imagine the howls of protest I'd get if I set my students such a question!!

And fourth/finally, as noted above -- final exams rarely change anyone's grade.

Believe it or not, I spend more time reading and commenting on final papers than I would marking bluebook exams. Harvard may be different, but here, I don't skip exams to start summer sooner but to get a better idea of what my students have learned.

Posted by: lab-lady | July 18, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Educators should use a variety of tools to assess students. Final exams serve an important purpose in that regard. A well crafted final exam requires students to stay up on material and synthesize it with newly acquired information throughout the semester. In addition, eliminating the final eliminated the process by which students were forced to think about a semester long subject. Finally, eliminating the final further erodes our thinking and recall skills. There is value to having to having students marshal information and develop an argument from memory or limited material under pressure. (This being said, I don't think finals that rely on multiple choice/true-false questions really serve much of a value)

Posted by: yomama6 | July 18, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I've had too many courses where a final exam didn't make sense. Either we took the last test during the set-aside final period, or we had a final project that was due. I think the last course I took that had a true cumulative hour+ final was freshman chemistry.

Having said that, finals do make sense for some courses and they do force the students to spend more time studying the material as a cumulative body of work (for those subject matters where it makes sense).

Posted by: steve1231 | July 18, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Harvard already gives out 50% A's anyway, its not like the finals were doing anything.

But in a college science/math/engineering class, isn't the final pretty much the ONLY grade?

Posted by: someguy100 | July 18, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to point out to unseemly trends that show lazy thinking:

(1) Sideswiththekids : The professor does not "turn the entire class over to his graduate assistant,". The administration does. Part of the reason is two-fold: (1) to train the next-gen of professors (good) and (2) cheap labor (bad). Blaming, and vilifying, the professor shows a complete lack of understanding.

Also, I see nothing wrong with graduate students helping professors by proctoring exams or grading tests. We have teacher assistants in public schools, right?

I also don't see anything wrong with an advanced graduate student teaching a course on occasion. One of my best history courses was taught by an advanced graduate student.

(2) The term 'elitist'. Seriously, do you guys have chips on your shoulders? Jealousy? What is your point in personally attacking these folks because they teach at expensive schools? There is far more supply than demand, and these professors could have easily ended up at UConn or UMass down the street.

BTW: all of my education has been public.

Posted by: steve1231 | July 18, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Buckbuck11 said " I am putting more stock in on-demand tests as opposed to papers and projects in order to be evaluate what the students can do on their own with what they've learned."

Well, that, at least, is a start. As a parent who FREQUENTLY ghostwrites papers for one of her relatives, and who appears to be the ONLY person who ever actually redpencils the papers she writes, I find the requirements for innumerable papers and projectos in each course at both the high school and college level, to be a burden and a pain. To add insult to injury, the presentations replace class time, so their major purpose appears to be to free the teachers from having to do the job for which they are being paid. Furthermore, teachers no longer meaningfully redpencil papers, so they are worthless as learning exercises. I appear to be the only person who actually reads, edits, and requires second and third drafts of the papers my kid actually does write. (Which are mostly those in the courses I consider useful, e.g. english, communications and spanish; (her major.) I TOTALLY AGREE that essay tests would make a whole lot more sense. Hell, even frequent multiple choice tests - preferably cumulative - would make more sense. Unfortunately, your modern day teacher and professor is too lazy to assign essay tests or to correct either essay tests or papers. Given that is the case, let us all agree that college is simply another rip-off in which the university gets paid outrageous sums to "credential" kids for later careers. Furthermore, because of this credentialling, kids today now need a college degree for positions such as store manager which previously didn't require it, (and still doesn't actually need it.) This is EXACTLY like Ancient China requiring applicants for positions as street cleaners to sit competitive exams writing multiple poems in a variety of forms, in long, competitive exams. Why SHOULD we respect this process?

Furthermore, may I point out that when I was in college (1970s) almost everyone graduated in eight semesters; a full load was four courses; there were NONE of these d*mb student presentations which replace instructional time; there were finals and midterms in science/math/history courses but no papers unless - as in upper level science - they replaced an examination; there were a doable 2-4 papers in literature courses, and the only course which required weekly papers was Freshman English? Now nationwide, only half of college students graduate in TWELVE semesters, and most of those take courses in the summer as well. Furthermore, NINE TENTHS of the courses which are now required for graduation are complete and utter b&llsh@t and all of them require realms of papers and presentations, none of which appear to be read by the teacher.

Again, WHY SHOULD we respect this process?

Posted by: shirinsilva | July 18, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

"While final exams may be a good assessment of learning, the assessment is negligible in terms of grades and therefore unnecessary since grades are the ultimate indicator of how well a student has done in a class."

So people go to school, not to learn, but to get good grades? Interesting.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | July 18, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

After 40+ years of college and university teaching and ten years of coordinating the Pennsylvania Summer Academy for the Advancement of College Teaching, I find Harvard’s decision to go beyond making final exams optional very surprising, especially when the general public has been pressing higher education for transparency and accountability.

Courses not knowledge- or text-based, such as writing courses, Art, or other practical kinds of courses that assume progression in students’ ability to create or perform something, have regularly concluded with a portfolio or actual performance that demonstrates each student’s facility in producing a polished product. Student proficiency, rather than mastery of content, is the goal.

My field is English Literature, and in planning a course in, say, 17th Century English Poetry, or even Shakespeare, what would I schedule for the last month or so of the course? I fully agree with the parenthetical “The last few weeks of class don’t really count when that material won’t be tested!” from Finn and Muldoon.

If the last part of the coursework won’t be evaluated, why not just cut the semester off by two weeks or so, a more significant boon to students and teachers than the Harvard Dean’s prediction of “a day or two.” Sounds like a giant step in the ongoing “dumbing down” process.

Posted by: hrockiii | July 18, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

"I find it baffling that everyone involved with education "theory" views tests and exams as mere "assessments" and nothing else. "

One you realize that it means less work for them, it should become clear.

Posted by: buckdharma | July 18, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Now grades are based entirely on your capacity for brown-nosing, and nothing more.

Posted by: fleeciewool | July 18, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I recall at least one case where a final exam saved me. I had a horrible time with Biochemistry. For some reason it did not click. I failed the first exam and got a D on the second. I probably should have dropped it, but I kept plugging away studing harder after each disaster. I got a C on the third and really thought I had done really well on the fourth test. I was really surprised when I got a D on the fourth.

Since I was going home for Christmas I threw the exam in my drawer and went home. When I got back, I checked it over to see what I had missed. I quickly realized that an error had been made in scoring the test. The teacher checked the exam and told me that I had not gotten a D but a B. He told me he was impressed by my improvement and if I got a B on the final he would give me a B for the course. I reviewed and studied really hard got a B on the final and a B in the course. Later when I taught at a University I would always give great consideration to the grade on the final exam in giving the final grade. I would not lower the grade, but I would raise the grade for excellent performance on the final. After all it what you learned in the end, not how well you scored as you moved through the course.

Posted by: FranJane | July 18, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

College students have been getting dumber and more arrogant for years. That trend will continue. More fodder for the welfare roles.

Posted by: SlideRule | July 18, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

If end of course finals are to be eliminated, then some comprehensive core exam needs to be given to evaluate a student's mastery of the liberal arts. For the major, a similar test should be given as well. Otherwise, where is the credibility ? This process can grade BOTH teachers and students.
Computer run exams can be safe and secure form cheating. What is the difference between a hand written essay versus one typed on a computer ?

Posted by: peterroach | July 18, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

I just don't see how eliminating the final exam for most courses can lower the standard of learning as others stated in the article.

Isn't it ironic that while the DOE is shoving standardized testing down our throats and basing decisions such as school closings off of student's performance on one standardized test in Reading and Math, that respected Harvard Professors conclude that Finals, being just one test, isn't a necessary measurement in the grand scheme of things.

Ironic too since Harvard is our Sec'y of Education's alma mater.

Posted by: rsolnet | July 18, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Harvard is just inching closer to admitting that when you pay $45,000+ a year for their courses your grades are paid for too.

Posted by: theobserver4 | July 18, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

This just goes to show you what a joke Ivy League colleges have become. All you have to do is spout socialist/Marxist rhetoric and wear an Obama campaign button to class and you will pass with flying colors. A Harvard education used to mean something, now it's mainly an indicator of the graduate's political views.

Posted by: get_it_right | July 18, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

The kind of course in which one can forego a final matters, but I gave students three choices as part of determining the final grade in most of my 1970s college courses: accept the cumulative result of weekly tests, do a major paper on a project proposed by the student and approved by the professor, or take the final exam. The department chair approved the options. The quality of the papers and exams was on the high end of a bell curve. Grades for the courses yielded a bell curve. That kind of choice for the students, offered at the beginning of the school term, works in everyone's best interest. For the teacher, it means a little less pressure during final grading time, the work having been done all along.

Posted by: jv26 | July 18, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Those aged 18-24 are also adults and not a "kid", meaning they shouldn't be called that word. It's alright for university courses not to require a final exam because along the length of the semester, it's the assignments related to the course which matter. As well, a final paper for a course is equivalent to a final exam so Chester E. Finn Jr. and Mickey Muldoon should know that.

Posted by: LibertyForAll | July 18, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Almost none of the professors in the Special Education department of UIC gave mid-term or final exams. They required projects instead. It was much better.

It was great because it didn't require us to memorize anything. And the projects were always related directly to what was going on in the classroom. I learned more from the projects than I ever would have memorizing for an exam.

Posted by: aby1 | July 19, 2010 5:16 AM | Report abuse

The varied viewpoints expressed here, and among most teachers, suggests that finals are a poor choice for uniform policy - that pedagogy varies sufficiently that teachers should make this choice as they construct their whole course, and administrators/peers should defer to these choices?

I wonder how many Harvard profs may stubbornly stick to finals. I hope some, in part cuz that would indicate a commitment to teaching, as they see it, as a priority duty.

Posted by: dsacken | July 19, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

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