Finals: Good Practice or Fool's Errand?

Final ExamIt’s that time of year again where the courses start to wind down. Which leads to the most anticipated question of the year. “Will there be a final exam?”  This can be a tricky question at the best of times.  For my grade 9 science students, it’s beyond tricky.

There are lots of arguments to be made about final exams. I don’t want to do a complete analysis of these arguments but I would like to say what I think the various pros and cons are. End of the Year Edit: at the bottom of this post I discuss what my decision was.

Reasons to not have an exam

  • We have 1 hour (maybe 90 min if I sacrifice my collaboration time) for an exam, which leads to a multiple choice format, which can lead to more basic knowledge questions
  • I worry that the format doesn’t really test full understanding of topics
  • I know that any test I use will not be validated - whatever the goal of the exam is, I (we) really have no way of knowing if our exam can even accomplish that goal
  • The exam will offer no feedback to students
  • For many students, they aren’t even planning on going to university so there’s no need for them to learn how to  prepare for exams
  • A full year exam for junior science in a year-long system is kind of crazy because it means that we will be testing students on material they learnt up to 8 or 9 months ago.  This is ironic given that a common reason for giving an exam is to get them ready for university. At university we are tested on material that is never older than 12 weeks!

Reasons to have an exam

  • Attempts to help students learn how to prepare for a final exam
  • Gets students familiar with the format/idea of final exams, so they are better prepared when faced with a final exam that has significance.
  • Gets students familiar with the stress of preparing and writing an exam.
  • While I don’t agree with giving students stress just for the sake of it, there does appear to be some validity in getting students to experience stress in low-risk environments. Perhaps it is almost a cross-curricular competency.

The Issues

For my grade 9 students this year, my decision on whether to administer an exam depends on three negative issues and two positive issues.  First on the negative side, I’m generally against the final for all the reasons listed above.  Secondly, my classes have an added problem of not actually having a science textbook.  While I don’t see textbooks as the holy grail in learning, I do recognize their value as reference material for a final exam.  My students have access to pdf files from the textbook, spread out over 27 separate files. It’s extremely unmanageable.  On top of this, many of my students don’t have computers but only have smartphones or they share a computer with 4 other people in their family. The third negative issue is that the format of exam I would administer doesn’t really mimic or model the “final exam” format of provincial exams or university exams.

On the positive side, I think it’s possible that going through the year-end review and prepping for an exam has value.  I really wish I had good data to guide me on just how worthwhile this exercise is though.  Secondly, I did see some interesting behaviours from students when they were told about the exam.  In particular, I saw one student that was becoming visibly agitated in class.  He started clenching his jaw, moving his head around and making noises. Later in class I asked him if he was feeling alright. He confirmed that the exam was making him anxious. But he also started asking direct questions on studying and how he can do good on the exam. He was quite clear that he wanted to do well.  This was a student that had significant issues staying focused in class all year, and not caring about grades too much.  The idea of an exam flipped a switch in him.

The best possible options

  1. Give a typical M/C exam.  Do a review of the year piece by piece, starting a week before.
  2. Give an open-book exam with maybe three questions.  The questions would be things like, “Give an example of a learning objective that you mastered in Electricity.  Describe what you thought prior to covering it in class, and what processes helped you understand it and ultimately master it.”  I would grade these exams with a very open and general rubric.  Did the student identify a learning objective they mastered? Were they able to describe it accurately and in detail?  Were they able to describe their process of learning?  I don’t need to worry about the “grade” or “mark” aspect of the exam, as it would take a significant departure from the year’s work to make any real change in overall grade.
  3. Give the students a Capstone Project.  Several students already expressed an interest in this. I’m always game for challenging students on something they are interested in.  I’m sure that there are many students that would hate a capstone project and would likely turn in really poor work, which ultimately could be a waste of time for a lot of people.

This will be a very difficult decision to make because I ultimately do not have the data or information needed. I don’t know if doing a pseudo-exam helps.  I don’t know if in-class reviews actually teach students how to review.

Perhaps some readers have ideas or answers to these questions?  I’d be interested in hearing your experience or rationale.


I went with a year-end review package assignment (no final exam) and overall I think it worked out very well.  See my 180 day blog post on it for more information.