Friday, December 13, 2013

Finals! Huh! Yeah! What are they good for?

We just finished finals at Grand Valley. Coincidentally, this week of exams overlapped with the release of the second Hobbit movie; this might explain why these lines (modified from this poem) were going through my head Thursday as I walked around campus:

I am not trying to suggest that like the One Ring, final exams are evil and must be destroyed. However, I do wonder about the wisdom and unintended consequences from placing so much emphasis on a single assessment event.  Rarely do final exam scores make that much of a difference on final grades. Yet, there is so much stress associated with final exams, for both the students and the teachers, that it got me to wondering if these tests are worth it.

During the MTH 323 final event (we did not have a written exam), I asked the teachers to consider whether or not our school ought to have final exams and why. This is the course for preservice teachers that I designed to reflect what it looks like to be a math teacher in a K-8 school. So we created a "school" and went about developing a curriculum. Therefore, it seemed reasonable to discuss the final exam policy we would have at our school.

Grade-level groups talked about the question and then shared their thoughts and rationale. I added my two cents, but mostly these points represent the teachers' perspective.
  • We need to have some sort of culminating experience as a way to identify what a student has mastered and possible weaknesses in the curriculum.
  • The experience needs to be different than the traditional exams that represent a cram and purge approach that does not result in lasting learning.
  • Like it or not, exams are a part of our culture and we would be doing our students a disservice if we fail to provide some experience with these types of assessments.
  • Perhaps we could give the exams a couple of weeks before the end of the semester so those who need to can make revisions and the rest can extend their learning.
  • Whatever we have them do needs to be meaningful.

It was the last point that resonated with me. How do we ensure that the culminating experience is meaningful - that it fosters the upper levels of the Engagement Continuum and not just compliance?
Developed by MTH 323 Teachers to monitor their engagement
Based on Engagement Taxonomy of Morgan and Saxton
At breakfast this morning, I asked a colleague what he thought final exams were good for. He said, "To see if students have synthesized the information addressed in the course." After a pause, he continued, "Of course, those are the questions they often struggle on most, which is discouraging."

"Why do we give all the other questions, then? The ones that focus on recall. Why not focus on the synthesis questions?" I asked.

"Probably because it's what we've always done," he responded. Neither of us were satisfied with this answer, but finals week was over (it was, after all, final) so there was nothing we could do about it now except think about what we might do different the next time around.

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