Applying ”Freakonomics” to Final Exams

One of my colleagues here at the University of Texas–Austin, the economist Daniel Hamermesh, recently complained in his New York Times “Freakonomics” blog about the common practice in many departments of assigning no final exams. I wish he had applied his own craft to this situation. The lack of final exams is merely one symptom of a general collapse of expectations. The average number of hours spent studying has fallen to twelve hours a week, according to a recent book. Why are college teachers expecting so little effort from their students? They are responding (in an economically rational way) to the incentives created by the modern research university. Teaching is a distraction from highly rewarded activities (research and administration). Insofar as teaching is rewarded at all, the measure of ‘good’ teaching consists solely of student evaluations, which (to put it mildly) are not improved by increasing students’ workload (including the assignment of final exams).
Some teachers continue to care about teaching and put high expectations on their students, from a sense of professional duty and the intrinsic enjoyment of being catalysts for learning. However, the system does its best to de-select such dinosaurs, favoring instead those who can bring in funds and raise institutional prestige through publication. Until we change the incentive structure, final exams (and other accoutrements of serious learning) will continue to be an endangered species.


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