School & District Management Opinion

From Final Exam to Defense of Learning

By Beth Holland — June 01, 2018 4 min read
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The month of May marked the beginning of exam season. Between the state testing, AP exams, and end-of-year finals, my Twitter feed has been packed with commentary about the value, purpose, intent, logistics, and content of these summative assessments. However, the conversation ignited by a tweet from Dan Meyer in response to a request from a student caught my attention.

As you can see by the number of replies, Dan’s tweet sparked a fascinating conversation about the intended purpose of final exams. A few respondents described administrative forces that dictated not only the existence of a final exam but also the ensuing content for the entire year. Others discussed the need for a reenvisioned exam - something that served as a culminating demonstration of deeper thinking and learning. One educator commented that the process of reviewing could be more valuable than the exam itself.

That last comment drove me into the conversation. I started wondering whether the process of preparing and the final event need to be considered as symbiotic and yet entirely separate entities. If the greater purpose of the final examination is to demonstrate a depth of knowledge and the capacity to work with that knowledge through analysis, synthesis, or application, then what new cognitive gains, skills, and understandings might students acquire through studying and preparation?

From a neuroscience perspective, Roediger and Pyc (2012) advocate that a depth of knowledge about a given subject serves as a prerequisite for creativity, critical thinking, and other desired 21st century skills. Gregory, Hardiman, Yarmolinskaya, Rinne, and Limb (2013) further this claim and assert that creativity can be viewed as a combination of both routine expertise - the ability to work towards a single solution such as what might be assessed by a traditional exam, and adaptive expertise - the ability to apply a deep understanding of a domain of knowledge in new and varied ways. From this perspective, there is tremendous value in possessing a deep understanding of a body of knowledge. Further, the act of taking an exam can be viewed as a means to solidify learning as tests can help to build retention. Because they force the student to reflect on their learning then actively apply it (Roediger & Pyc, 2012), exams may not be all bad.

However, this perspective raises a few more questions. First, what is worth retrieving and retaining when students can easily access low-level facts and information through their phones? In a pre-Internet, pre-device era, education focused on helping students to amass a body of knowledge for future retrieval (Perkins, 2014). In his book, Future Wise, Perkins (2014) advocates that students would receive a greater benefit from becoming “amateur-experts” within a more limited field of information such that they can adapt to new content areas and leverage their understanding to make new connections. A notion that contradicts many of the breadth vs. depth tenets of final exams that proliferate throughout education.

Second, what is the purpose of the exam itself? Education advocate and former head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada, argues that summative state tests do nothing to benefit the child. In his TED Talk, he questions the logic of high-stakes, high-stress tests that do not provide educators with the information that they need to then support their students. From this perspective, what is the purpose of this type of final exam beyond maybe a rite of passage?

In the Twitter conversation that sparked this post, one individual commented that students needed to demonstrate that they possessed a fundamental understanding of a body of knowledge. Otherwise, how could the teacher be certain that the students had retained and really learned all that they needed over the course of the year? I thought about how this argument might play out in the rest of the world. Doctors take medical boards to show that they have amassed the knowledge that they need for their profession. Lawyers take the Bar Exam; and yet, these seem like isolated and specialized incidences.

I took one summative assessment during my doctoral studies - an oral comprehensive exam to demonstrate that I had amassed a body of knowledge that would allow me to engage in scholarly dialog. Unlike any exam that I had ever taken before, the greater purpose was to defend my learning. In two hours, I had to demonstrate that I could speak with authority and evidence. To prepare for a single exam that encompassed two years of coursework, I had to review the course material, analyze its contents, and then synthesize what I had learned into new knowledge blocks that could be applied to any given question. During the exam, I had to provide evidence based on that synthesis and then defend the reasoning behind my response.

I realize that it may not be realistic - or appropriate - for every student to have a two-hour conversation as an exam, but what if the entire notion of exams became a defense of learning versus a regurgitation of information? What if students could choose whether they wanted to defend orally, in writing, through video, in audio, as a visual, with a portfolio...? How might changing final exams to a final defense impact how our students approach learning?


Gregory, E., Hardiman, M., Yarmolinskaya, J., Rinne, L., & Limb, C. (2013). Building creative thinking in the classroom: From research to practice. International Journal of Educational Research, 62, 43-50. //doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2013.06.003

Perkins, D. (2014). Future wise: Educating our children for a changing world. Chicago: John Wiley & Sons.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(4), 242-248. //doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.002

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