The Exam Is Over

A depressing, if somehow unsurprising given the current state of higher education, read from the Boston Globe.
It seems that only 23 percent of spring 2010 courses at Harvard offer final exams. At least one reason is embarrassing—the university has cut back on funding exam proctors, meaning that professors or their teaching assistants now need to supervise the three-hour final exams. Here was History professor Charles Maier: “A lot of people said, ‘I don’t want to go through that.’ They didn’t say it openly. But it probably was a factor.”
But Keith O’Brien’s article is filled with rationalizations as to why many educators consider eliminating final exams a positive thing. The Globe piece—using language (bolded by me) all too familiar to the assault on quality in contemporary higher education—ponders how the development raises “serious pedagogical questions about 21st century education: How best do students learn? And what’s the best way to assess that? Is the disappearance of high-stakes, high-pressure final exams a sign that universities are failing to challenge today’s students, or is it just a long overdue acknowledgment that such tests aren’t always the best indicator of actual knowledge?”

Given that, as O’Brien notes, “exams, in one form or another, have been a part of higher education in America since the very beginning,” it’s not hard to guess where the Education establishment would come down on the question. SUNY-Albany Education dean Robert Bangert-Drowns, after conceding that some would interpret the move as an assault on quality, reasoned, “If you looked at a lot of final exams in courses you’d think, ‘This is not a very valuable standard.’ These tests ask the kind of questions that students may never be asked again in their lives, in detail that they may never be asked again in their lives.” (In other words: the ideal of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is passe, since students might never be asked the questions they address in a History final.) Added Iowa State’s Linda Serra Hagedorn “The better approach is to have a more holistic approach to learning where it’s smaller increments, where one learns in steadier and smaller increments.”
I admit: I hadn’t realized that frequently testing during the term and giving a final exam constituted an either/or approach. For several years, I have given reading-based quizzes during the semester in my classes, along with a comprehensive final exam.
Is the trend a positive one? For this proposition, the article offers only two pieces of evidence: a poll of astronomy students at the University of Arizona (they unsurprisingly didn’t like final exams), and a study conducted of algebra students at Richard J. Daley College. Somehow I don’t think that findings from algebra classes at “a two-year community college that prides itself on being a melting pot of diversity” are very relevant for understanding the quality of education at Harvard.
But perhaps the Globe thinks otherwise.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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