Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Final Exams

An alert reader sent me this link to a Boston Globe story about Harvard eliminating its final exam period.

We’ve had similar discussions here, though the reasons aren’t all the same. I’d love to hear from wise and worldly readers who have lived through a similar transition, and who know from experience what the concrete issues are.

Like most colleges on a traditional calendar, we devote the last several days of the semester to a final exam period. Exams are scheduled in two-hour blocs. The blocs don’t always coincide with class times, since class times are usually either fifty or seventy-five minutes. There’s a makeup day at the end, which comes in handy for schedule conflicts and/or snow days. Grades are due shortly after the end of the exam period, with a hard goal of finishing everything before Christmas.

The system works pretty well for courses that lend themselves to traditional exams that can be graded quickly. But it’s awkward, at best, for courses that tend to put more weight on papers, projects, or performances.

Over the years, even some of the folks who give something like traditional final exams have started creeping those forward into the final week of classes. Although the official college policy states that exam week is for finals, we’ve had students complain truthfully that they’ve had multiple finals on the same day, in the week before any are supposed to be given. Of course, others simply have final papers or projects due, usually the week before finals.

From a workload standpoint, this is sticky.

In a collective bargaining environment like this one, everyone in the same unit is supposed to have the same rules. That means that the semester is supposed to start at the same time, and end at the same time.

Some of the people who have moved their exams up have done so out of a sense that their colleagues had a longer vacation than they did. Indeed, if you walk the faculty office corridors during exam week -- I’ve been known to do that -- they’re a lot more vacant than the official exam schedule would lead you to believe. We’ve backed into a situation in which the official norm has become the de facto exception, and students are often caught in between. Frankly, it’s also a grievance waiting to happen.

In addition to the educationally-based ideas outlined in the Globe piece, we’re considering just dropping final exam week and extending classes to the end to address workload equity. If some people can start their vacations earlier simply by declaring that they use project exams, then we have a pretty basic fairness issue. But if classes meet to the end, they meet to the end. People who want to give traditional finals still can; they just have to break them into two parts.

This move would also greatly reduce the number of schedule conflicts, since nobody’s schedule would change for that week. Adjuncts who work at multiple campuses wouldn’t suddenly have to juggle when their obligations shift; they wouldn’t shift.

I’ve heard from a few areas -- music, notably -- that such a change would be a challenge for the final juried performances, but it seems clear that we can work around that with a little ingenuity. It would also make common finals across multiple sections more challenging; presumably, the students who have math on Tuesday could find out from the students who had it on Monday what the questions were. But this, too, seems fixable with a little ingenuity. It’s already standard practice to mix up questions on different versions of the same exam, and/or to change the numbers in a given equation. It can be done.

Wise and worldly readers, it can’t be as simple as this. (Nothing ever is!) Do you see a serious downside to doing away with a final exam period? If you’ve lived through a transition like this, did you see some unanticipated-but-serious issues arise?

Hmm. Depends how your finals are administered, I think. Are they held in the regular classroom, or in specially set-out exam rooms? As an undergrad, I had final exams for languages which were held in the lecture hall: this set-up was *vastly* inferior to an examination in an exam hall, which is what I have for Latin now. Conditions in a lecture hall are more cramped; it's probably easier to plagiarise; and you can't leave when you're done due to everyone being crammed in.

It's not so relevant to me, since I rarely had more than two exams, but I know many students in courses other than mine also relied heavily on the revision week which we got before exams; likewise, those who work part-time around their classes may really *need* the week or so after class officially finishes, in which to consolidate their content.
Yes! Major Downside!
My CC didn't have an exam period -- profs gave their exams during the last week of classes during regular class time.
This meant that EVERYONE who was taking a full load wound up with 5 exams/papers all in the last two days.
A lot of people at my CC work part or full time so they set up their schedule so they only have to make it to school two days a week (either T/H or M/W or sometimes 3 days with M/W/F). Last semester I had 4 classes (3 of which were lab classes, 1 of which was easy) all on T/H (a 14-hour day, but it allowed me to work the rest of the week) I wound up having 3 lecture finals, two lab finals, and a paper due all on the same day.
At the very least, it would be nice if profs could put the lab final on a different day than the final.
If there are jealousy issues around vacation, maybe there can be a rotating system -- one semester, these departments get to give exams early, these departments/courses/profs don't; next semester, they switch (and you could try to do it intelligently if you have data on which classes students are most likely to take concurrently. It wouldn't completely solve the problem of students having 5 finals in 2 days, but it would help)
Also, if the teachers who assign papers could stand to have one less day of grading (or if the CC could stand to have them turn in grades one day later), it would be VERY nice if final papers were due a day after all the finals ended.
Just from what I've seen with myself and others, when students have 2 exams and 2 paper due on the same day, the papers really take a hit.
I think that exams put you under more immediate pressure (b/c it sucks to sit there during a test and realize that you don't know stuff and you're blowing it, whereas it doesn't feel so awful to attach a hasty, piece-of-crap paper to an email and press 'send')

IDK, would teachers be willing to accept one fewer day to grade if it meant that the work they got was higher quality?
As a music faculty member, I don't see why the exam schedule should affect music juries. At both colleges where I have taught and at the 3 colleges I attended, juries were only 15-20 min. per student and students signed up for time slots by instrument (say, for instance, percussion juries would be Mon. from noon-4pm and Tues. from 10am-noon - the students fill in a time when it fits their schedule). In the rare case that a student had finals during those times, the instructors would work with the students to find a time that worked. It really wasn't too difficult.

And not to sound unsympathetic, but when students make their schedules so that classes are only on 2 days of the week, they should realize that most likely there will be some crazy-hectic days when multiple due-dates line up.
As someone who has had the last exam slot for years, I can say I'd welcome the extension of exams to everyone or their elimination for everyone, purely on workload fairness.

My colleagues in the English department give papers*, which "of course" take time to grade so they are due in the last week or two before exams. But I've noticed that they have time for lots of special lunches and a golf tournament during the time I'm supervising exams and frantically marking — so obviously they manage without pulling all-nighters**.

*They argue that composition is reflective, taking time to demonstrate, while science is 'just facts' and so can be done with multiple choice and short calculation questions. Which is historically how we've done it, but only because a 14 hour turnaround (from last exam being completed to final marks due in the computer) precludes any other kind of exam.

**90 exams turned in at 4 PM. Final marks due next morning at 9 AM. Is there a way other than an all-nighter?
There are various small advantages, but I think the biggest one is that it allows for longer tests. I'm not a big fan of long exams, but there's simply no way I could write a 50-minute exam that would fairly evaluate a student's understanding of a semester worth of chemistry. One could argue that we could write non-comprehensive exams (which I do for some other classes), but the students like our comprehensive exam because we allow them to replace earlier tests with portions of it. That is, if they show that they've learned the "exam 1" material by the final exam, we give them a higher grade for exam 1. After all, what we care about is what they have learned by the end, not really if it took them a little longer than others to learn it.
A little off-topic, but where I teach, any final project is supposed (yes, some don't follow this) to be due at the end of exam week. That takes care of the differing semester-end dates.
As the original article in suggests, the question really isn't about the logistics of scheduling final exams. Instead the better question is a pedagogical one. Is it better to assess student performance with a big, summative test at the end, or in multiple ways throughout the term, or with some application of concepts like project reports and papers? I welcome that discussion.
DD's summary is misleading; Harvard is *not* in any way "eliminating its final exam period." Rather, faculty now need to file a form if they *are* going to give a final exam, rather than (as it is currently) if they *aren't* going to have one. Presumably the same, fairly low, percentage of classes will continue to have final exams during the standard finals week as there are now.

(Harvard typically uses hired proctors and different rooms for its final exams, so the administration needs to know whether the prof is actually going to give an exam...)
At my CC we are required to meet during the final exam period. I am not required to GIVE a final exam, but I am required to meet and do SOMETHING educational during the final exam period.

I don't teach a class that "exam" well -- virtually all of their assignments are papers -- and it is a unit-based class that isn't cumulative. For a while I would do my last lecture day during that class, which is what most of my colleagues do, but skips were high and students slept or studied. Now I give a group project at midterm and do presentations on the last day. I can grade them while they present, they can leave with a grade in hand, everyone shows up, everybody's happy.

But it is a little frustrating to cope with the idea that all classes are the same and should all fit into the same structure (or the same handful of structures). I know it would be easier on my students if we just got to FINISH the semester and then I graded their papers; they could focus on their exam-focused classes then instead of worrying about mine.
a class/"exams" or classes/"exam" ... evil editing bug!
I also agree with MRW that a big reason to have a formal final period is to allow for longer exams. I teach math, you can't really have a comprehensive final in only 50 minutes for a course like calculus.

This probably wouldn't work for a CC or a big R1, but the best exam system I've worked with was at a place that had a very strong student honor code. Exams of any kind, final or otherwise, were simply given to students stapled shut with the time limit on the front. They were expected do them whenever, and stay within whatever rules were set on the outside. This completely eliminated all the logistics associated with exams.
MRW is right about assessing what you've learned at the end of the semester.

As an undergrad engineering/comp sci major, everything I did built on previous concepts. That is, by the end of the term, you've learned the concepts that you struggled with at the beginning.

The problem is, grades matter in the real world. But what does a "C" mean? Does a "C" mean you don't know the material very well at all, or does it mean that you just didn't learn the material at the pace the professor would have liked? How can a prospective employer differentiate between the two? There *is* a material difference. In the real world, I'm pretty sure employers assume the former, but a non-comprehensive exam can only reflect the later.

And to administer a comprehensive exam for a 15-week period, yeah, you probably do need a two-hour block to do it.
My CC got rid of finals week a few years ago when we went to a compressed calendar. There was some heartburn in the faculty, but for the most part everyone's adjusted and it's died down. We do hear complaints from students, though, about having multiple finals/papers due on the same day. (I'm sure there are just as many students who are happy that they don't have to rearrange work/childcare schedules for that week, though.)

However, the "early final due date" problem won't go away--it will just creep up a week earlier. Our faculty are required to hold class during that last week even if it's just to collect final papers and answer questions. What happens in practice I don't really know as we don't go around checking up. To the poster whose school has grades due the day after classes end--that's crazy. We have five working days and I don't think our Academic Senate would stand for less.
I've taught classes that lent themselves well to a final exam and ones where a take-home was the only reasonable way to assess and drive home the material. But it's ridiculous to claim that you need to make the paper due during class time when grades are due four to five days after the final exam period ends. That's not a problem with the idea of the final exam, it's a problem with faculty gaming the system at the expense of their students.

Which I still don't particularly mind, by the way -- I'm amazed that CC faculty are able to maintain the level of professionalism they do, in all honesty.
The biggest problem I can see is the absence of a study period. At my college, professors being done early wasn't so much of a problem because papers were due during the exam period as well. It was a blanket ban: no finals of any kind before study period, and different departments were assigned different exam dates that also happened to be paper due dates. Our study period therefore was also our paper writing period. If you had no exams, you still used the time for pedagogically useful activities.
Ugh! This sounds horrible. Let me recap. You have a problem with faculty who are slacking off on the job and leaving early. Rather than deal with those faculty, you are proposing to change the system in a way that will arguably make things worse for many students. Argh!

The proper solution, it seems to me, is to go have a talk with the faculty who are giving exams early so they can go home for vacation. (And, btw, you might just find out that some of them aren't leaving for vacation: they're just taking their exams with them to grade at a coffee shop, and the reason they gave the exam early is to have more time to grade. Or maybe you'll find that they are indeed slacking off; if so, make it clear that this is unacceptable.)

It sounds like there are so many unintended consequences of your proposed change just waiting to happen. I would hate it. Having to give exams in class is horrible, for at least three reasons. First, 50 minute classes are nowhere near enough for a final exam. (And doesn't this create an inequity between classes that meet 3x a week at 50 minutes per meeting, vs those that meet 2x a week at 80 minutes per meeting?) Second, the classroom teach in is almost always too small for exam administration: you can't invoke alternate-seating, and thus cheating is a problem. Third, requiring instructors to create multiple exams for multiple sections? Horrible, horrible, horrible. Do you have any clue how terrible that is? Of all the things you mention, that's the one that would have me running screaming to my Academic Senate first. There is no good way to make two copies of the exam fair and of equal difficulty. You suggest just changing some numbers in the exam, but that fails to address the issue: students in the second section will still have a big advantage over students in the first section, because they'll know what kinds of questions will be on the exam and can practice for them.

At my school, we have a carefully orchestrated process that seems to work well. We have a reserved final exam week. The rule is that final exams must be administered during final exam week -- unless the instructor submits a request for an exception to the Academic Senate committee, before the semester starts. (This provides flexibility, and requests are pretty rare.) If no special exception has been granted, it is strictly against the rules to administer the final exam early. We have an official period of about three days after the final exam is due to turn in grades, but this is absolutely not enforced and it is fine to take longer to turn in letter grades, if needed. Our final exam time periods are scheduled by the registrar before students sign up for classes and are published via the same means used to publish the class times. Students are told not to sign up for two classes whose final exams are scheduled at the same time (and the registrar generally ensures that classes that meet at different times almost always are assigned different final exam time slots).

As far as I can tell, this solves every problem in your original post -- except for the more general one of faculty slacking off. Of course, if faculty want to slack off, there are a million and one ways they can do it; that's a social problem that cannot be completely solved with final exam rules. But our rules do prevent one particular form of slacking off, namely, our rules prevent us from administering the final exam early, without special permission. This all seems like a very reasonable compromise and is working well for us.

General point: You should be working out a solution in collaboration with the faculty Academic Senate -- I do not recommend having a dictate come down from on high from the administration. It's important to have buy-in from faculty, and moreover, to hear about issues you might not have thought of with your proposed scheme.
I'm actually a little surprised to read about the "multiple sections" issue. We actually have more of a problem with this for finals than we do for exams during the semester. We've added an extra evening class to all 7 of our general chemistry classes. This only meets 3 times during the semester, and the only thing we use it for is exams. The final, on the other hand, is at a time determined by the registrar based on the class's normal meeting time. That means that all 7 sections have to have their final at a different time (and across several days).

Every school I've been to bases their final exam schedule on regular class meeting times, so different sections have their exams at different times. I know that not everyone does it like this, but it seems to be the more common way and anything else seems like a logistical nightmare.


I should add this to my earlier comment - long, comprehensive exams aren't always the best evaluation mechanism, but there are courses where they are. Having a long slot for the exam doesn't force profs who want short exams to write long ones. Not having an exam slot does force profs who want long exams to write short ones.
I don't care as long as no one steals any more days from what used to be a 16 week semester that contained 5x15 class hours plus 2 final exam hours. It is the students who will suffer.

My only observation is that this seems like you are making a change in policy to avoid having to do your job. It would seem to me that your bargained contract is stronger than our college's mere policy, yet you passively wait for a faculty grievance against other faculty members rather than enforce the contract! It would also seem to me that getting rid of finals will not change the behavior that concerns you.

"At the very least, it would be nice if profs could put the lab final on a different day than the final."

Our college does this, scheduling lab exams during the last regular week of the semester. Although we do not have a "dead" week, few faculty give an hour exam one week followed by a final the next week so this works out pretty well. Our Deans have also done a pretty good job scheduling the exam blocks.

"If there are jealousy issues around vacation, maybe there can be a rotating system -- one semester, these departments get to give exams early, these departments/courses/profs don't ..."

This isn't about jealousy, it is justifiable anger at the unprofessional behavior of faculty who let students out halfway through class every day, cancel several classes during any week with a holiday, and reschedule or cancel final exams to allow more time for things they would rather be doing than their job. I vividly recall one prof who voiced that anger when students complained that he held class on a class day that other faculty just skipped.

It is also about admin not knowing if classes even meet, since they give a months notice before "observing" a class. I only know of one instance where a prof was caught doing this (a student didn't get the memo and went to the Dean to see where the final was) and came close to losing a job as a result.

"90 exams turned in at 4 PM. Final marks due next morning at 9 AM."

Someone needs to get the VP responsible for this to teach a class under those rules. We have an entire weekend to grade finals.

"Having a long slot for the exam doesn't force profs who want short exams to write long ones. Not having an exam slot does force profs who want long exams to write short ones."

Not true. I can give an exam over two days, asking one 50 minute question one day and two 25 minute problems the next. The problem for students is when the person teaching the class that meets 15 min after mine is doing the same thing on the same two (or three) days. Back-to-back calculus and physics exams can be a bit much.
I'm going to throw out there that I did have my exam for a lab-heavy biotechnology course during reading day last year. I'll probably do it again this year if the students agree. Why? Because last year, the exam was scheduled for December 22 (I had it on December 17). This year, it's a little better in that it's December 21.

Our last day of classes this semester is December 16, and finals don't begin until December 20 (except for the Saturday classes, which can hold theirs on 12/18). I think it's a bit late for all for that time of year. (It's all because of Labor Day being late, and honestly? I'd rather begin before Labor Day if it means I can have a sane few days leading up to the holidays.) I have three small children and yes, they expect Santa show up. There is only so much prep for the holiday you can do ahead of time. (I'm a woman, so most of the buying/wrapping/baking/Christmas card duties fall to me.)

In May, I'm fine with waiting until the end. When finals go until December 23, though, I'm going to bend the rules.
I think final exams would be easier if they weren't all crammed into one crazy week. Students get overwhelmed with the workload, most don't sleep. If it was over a two week period, students would perform better. It would give them more time to pack in between exams. I don't remember finals fondly. At least I was able to make money on my textbooks by selling them online to instead of standing in the college bookstore line.
I'm a student from a Hums/SS background and from unofficial conversations with faculty exams (and tests, for that matter) are only incorporated into assessment to cut down on grading time (and labor for adjuncts). When topics' aims and outcomes are more along the lines of 'critical thinking', then exams are fairly useless indicators. (I always score brilliantly in exams, but anyone who actually reads the required material and attends classes does likewise).
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