What do you do on the last day of class? By that I mean the very last meeting, not necessarily “the last day of classes” which is usually the penultimate meeting. For most courses, the last meeting consists of a final exam which – whether cumulative or not – hopefully tests knowledge of everything that has been covered and relies on skills that have been practiced all semester. Is this useful?
There is a long tradition of having a final exam to round out a course. A last judgment that, like the conclusion of a novel, has been logically building since the first day and gives everyone a proper resolution to their story arc. Some succeed, some fail, some fall in between, but everyone gets a clean ending. In reality, though, this is a bit of an illusion. Learning and using knowledge isn’t supposed to stop on the last day. And anyone would have to admit that the professor benefits from this clean ending a lot more than the students, who have to actually go out – for the rest of their lives – and use the skills they’ve acquired. They don’t benefit much from a number or letter in my grade sheet, they’re judged by their ability to function in life.
Still, exams do have tremendous value despite their bad reputation. Henry Roediger III has done a tremendous amount of research in this area and found that testing encourages deep cognitive processing (critical thinking, explicit thinking, etc). It also provides students with a accurate feedback about gaps in their knowledge and improves memory significantly more than studying or thinking about the material. In fact, I frequently tell students that the best way to study, and the main method supported by memory research, is to test themselves at home. Unfortunately, most people have the idea that studying involves “going over” the material (i.e., just looking at it) until they are thoroughly bored and tired. Overall, frequent testing is one of the most effective methods for building long-term memory of course material.
That doesn’t make it fun. (Though I do teach students how to cognitively reappraise this experience to make it more enjoyable and effective, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post).
What if you really do the most testing possible? I once was a teaching assistant for a Cognitive Psychology course. The professor was young but had just earned tenure, and so he was brave enough to try this technique: The course had 10 exams, plus a midterm and final, and each exam covered ALL the material for the whole semester. So, students basically took a cumulative final every week. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were not happy with this arrangement. Also not surprisingly, grades at the beginning were very low. Over the course of the semester, however, grades improved until, at the very end, the grade distribution was comparable to any normal course. Everyone learned, despite a huge portion of the course consisting only of testing, and according to all current memory research the technique should allow them to have better memory for that material for a longer time. I’ve never tried this myself, but it is hard to deny the benefits of testing even though most students are afraid of it.
In a recent senior seminar, I did give the class an exam that I told them would not count for a grade. It was on introductory material, not things covered specifically in the seminar, but we followed all the procedures for a normal exam. When they finished we went over the results and they all saw their grade, and knew I would see their grade, even though it didn’t count for anything at all. My observation was that they treated it much like a normal exam, including all of the stress and anxiety. I see a similar thing during our senior exit exam, which also does not count toward any grade but covers material for all four years of a normal psychology education. Students worry, get very serious during the administration of the test, and leave with much the same attitude they would have for a normal final (exhausted and not particularly happy).
Having thought about this for a while, I’ve come to two conclusions. First, exams are clearly important and very useful for helping students learn and build critical thinking skills. Second, because they aren’t generally liked, they don’t necessarily need to be the last thing students remember about the course. Memory research also shows that we are bias to remember the conclusion of a story (or a course) more than the middle, and thus when someone says “what did you learn in Dr. Couchman’s class?” it would be nice if they remembered something about the material or a mind-expanding activity rather than taking an exam. Memory research ALSO shows that very little of the course content will be remembered (though skills and thinking strategies can be maintained), and therefore it seems counterproductive to emphasize facts on the last day. Instead, there ought to be a way to emphasize skills and experience in a meaningful way that will also be memorable.
A recent article in the Chronicle talks about turning the final exam into a kind of epic experience that is more like a game than a serious sit-down test. Other professors have even ditched the final exam altogether in favor of a final “event” that emphasizes the real-life applications of course concepts rather than re-hashing learned facts.
As I’ve talked about previously, my course looks at metacognition – thinking about thinking – and will focus on research skills that students need in their careers. This seems like the perfect topic to use for a kind of non-final final. I don’t know if it will be an epic experience or event, but I’ve decided students will present their research projects to the class (exactly like you would do in a real career) while also incorporating activities that demonstrate whatever mental phenomena they investigated directly to the class. This could be the method of their experiment, or a simpler demonstration to give everyone the gist of the problem they explored. The other students will participate, something that is generally exciting and memorable, but will also learn. And in many ways, having to explain your work (and the theory behind it) and answer questions from fellow students and professors is the best kind of exam.
They will be tested on all the skills that they’ll need in the future, but they will remember a crazy day of participating in fun demonstrations. With any luck, they’ll develop deep critical thinking and interpersonal skills AND look back on their time in college as an exciting thing that gave them new ideas and helped them think outside the box.