If I need to rely on a big final exam to find out what my students have learned, or not learned, over the course of the school year, then I’m not doing my job very well. Is there some intrinsic value in asking students to cram, memorize, and regurgitate a body of information, knowing they will promptly forget it? Am I missing something?
I do know that less than five minutes into the testing period Andrea will have chewed the end of her pen into a mangled mixture of plastic and saliva. Jack will be agonizing over his grade even before he writes his name on the paper. Chris will have already asked a half-dozen questions about the most simple directions--"just to be sure"--by the time he starts. Kristina’s knuckles will be cracking. Brian’s fingertips drumming.
Yet tradition and policy prevail, and I dutifully administer final exams to a sea of faces sadly devoid of the smiles that adorned them throughout the year. This is not the appropriate way for us to part company after our year together.
Instead teachers should strive from the beginning of the year to make sure that final exams are nothing more than a practical continuation of the year’s studies, a chance for students to exhibit their repertoire of skills, to show what they know and can do. We should move away from finals as omnipotent documents that send students the message that in two hours we can measure the successes of their preceding 10 months. A final exam is a power trip, a head game in which teachers get to say, “See, it’s the kids’ fault. I tested what I taught, and they failed to learn to it.” It also gives some students the chance to declare to others that “I am smarter than you.” Neither is an appropriate or desirable “outcome.”
In life we are rarely, if ever, tested with a No. 2 pencil and paper. We are tested by doing. If my students write more fluently, speak more confidently, and read with more pleasure in June than they did in September, then I, their teacher, have passed a test. And I didn’t have to answer a single multiple-choice question about my methodology. For my success, I get a new group of students the following term.
What would happen if on the first day of school, students were told that testing is not important, that doing is what counts? I have taken this approach, de-emphasizing testing and stressing creativity, self-motivation, and commitment. I have successfully used final-exam questions as open-ended as: “Write something that you will feel proud of and that I will enjoy.”
There are those who think this kind of approach is worth a try but who will say, “I have to give tests.” Fine, give the tests that policy requires you to give, but downplay your own exams or replace them with projects that require commitment, revision, and follow-up, not memorization.
As each new school year begins, I feel unsettled until I know the names and personalities of the individual bodies I’ll be spending time with every day. As teachers, we cannot look at these people as letter grades or numerical averages. By the end of the school year, they will have laughed and cried with us. Loved and hated us. Obeyed and defied us. We will have seen them healthy and peaked, bubbling with energy and drained with fatigue. They often ignore us, but once in a while, they are momentarily moved--or even forever changed--by something we do or say.
Each September, we need to rededicate ourselves to showing our students that they are capable of learning and doing. If we succeed, final exams won’t be a time of apprehension and fear of failure, but a time for students to demonstrate their own ways of doing the things that we, and they, knew all along that they could do.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Free of Finals