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ON THE FRONT LINES: U. ought to replace final exams with functional alternatives

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Finals week is as much of a legend on college campuses as it is a reality. For some, it can make or break their grades for the semester. It is not rare for a class’s only grades to be the midterm and the final, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on students to perform well on their exams. With the mental health struggles many students face on college campuses, it is time to move away from high-pressure testing and move toward methods of assessment that take pressure off of students and are more practical and relevant to their fields of study.

When finals week comes up at the end of the semester, the pressure for students to perform is often immense and taxing on one’s mental health. The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, reported that visits to the University’s Counseling and Mental Health Center increase in the weeks approaching finals.  

Any college student that tells you they prefer finals over other assessment techniques is definitely in the minority. In one poll taken by a University of Arizona professor in a lecture with more than 600 students, 98 percent said they were less stressed taking short, weekly quizzes than they were taking large exams.

The method of final examinations also leaves behind students that are poor at test-taking. Nearly everyone has a story in which they forgot everything they knew the minute the test was put in front of them, and a lot of teachers and professors have stories of students that shined throughout the semester only to bomb the final exam and sink their grade. 

Not only does this unfairly place importance on one test, it also only records a student’s aptitude at one point in time. Regular assessments place less pressure on those who do not test well, and they better record their performance throughout the semester rather than just at a singular time. A student’s grade in the class should be derived from their performance throughout the entire class, not just from an exam or two.

There are options other than large final exams for assessing student performance. In the spring of 2009, just 259 of 1,137 undergraduate courses at Harvard University held a final exam, showing that professors are finding other ways to assess student performance. Personally, only two of my classes are holding final exams this semester. The rest are using weeks-long final projects, final papers and regular assessments throughout the semester instead. 

If colleges claim to care about the health and wellness of their students as much as they say they do, why are they not looking into ways to assess students without as much of a toll on their mental health?

There are numerous options that professors can use to measure student progress that will be more effective than exams. For example, multiple smaller assessments can show how a student progresses throughout the semester rather than just at the midterm point and at the end. Final projects can be used in a student’s portfolio in creative fields, which they can use to market themselves in their industries. Final papers can be written around a student’s schedule over multiple weeks, giving the student more control over their time and reducing stress. 

Both of these options alleviate attendance issues on the final exam day. Students have to travel back to their families for winter break, and sometimes they really do get sick during finals week and cannot make it to the exam. With regular assessments, final projects or final papers, attendance on final exam day is no longer an issue.

Finals week is sometimes seen as a rite of passage, or an irreplaceable fact of college life. But, what constitutes college life has changed and been molded by students throughout modern history. College was once only for men and that changed. Hazing in fraternities was seen as a necessary part of college life and that changed. Low-income students used to be excluded from college life and that also changed. 

By making students’ voices heard and rallying against practices that we find unnecessary and unfair, we have changed what constitutes college life in the past and we can change what constitutes college life in the future. It is not about making college easier, but rather it is about what is fair to students and what helps them learn most efficiently. In that sense, finals are no longer necessary on college campuses.

Dustin Niles is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is a staff photographer at The Daily Targum.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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