Final Exams, Final Mistake

A recent op-ed article in my university’s student-run newspaper, written by a soon-to-be graduating senior, questioned the wisdom of cumulative final exams (click here to read the article).  It’s great to see a student putting their critical thinking skills to use. Professors should do the same. The student, Lauren Lustgarten, said:

“Instead [of final exams], professors should make students take part in creative projects or presentations. Something that actually shows ones creativity and that can actually successfully measure ones knowledge on the subject. At least projects and presentations get you ready for the real world post graduation. Cumulative final exams filled with details we learned months prior will not help us in life down the road.”

I share that sentiment. Needless to say, I have never given final exams (nor mid-term exams) in any of my courses in the 17 years that I have been teaching in higher education. Final exams is a useless tradition that should be questioned by all (same goes for mid-term exams).

In my view, cumulative final exams are a futile effort by professors to force all the information contained in the course onto students. Professors push onto students a big batch of information, the entirety of which they think is important. But, what information do students think is important? Why not instead allow students to pull from the course the information that they think is most important to them, and for their success post-graduation? And why not allow them to do this in a way that exercises their creativity and also the human desire to make things?

chhen1Readers of this blog and those who have read my book Lean Teaching know that in all my courses I give an assignment to students to create a one-page visual control whose purpose is to help them apply what they learned in the course in relation to their own needs and interests. It requires students to undertake a comprehensive review of all course materials, just as a final exam does, but it replaces the stress and pressure of a final exam with a fun, interesting, and memorable challenge.

The image above shows a wonderful, creative example of a one-page visual control made by a student, Zack Chhen, and submitted a few days ago. Click here to see other recent examples of the visual controls created by my students.

The one-page visual control that each student creates helps them personalize their discovery and learning process, and transform it into something useful for years into the future. After all, the only way to really know the material learned in a course is to use the material learned in a course. Absent this, students finish courses with no practical or useful distillation of the learning from their perspective. A graded cumulative final exam (document) is of no use to students after they graduate, but a one-page visual control is of use – potentially of great use.

This semester I asked my students to create another type of visual control, in addition to the one-page visual control. I asked them to:

“Make a small physical object (desktop sized) that reminds you of one or more key learnings from this course that you intend to apply on-the-job. Material of construction can be anything you like (wood, aluminum foil, paper, paper mâché, styrofoam, etc.). Bring it to class and explain it at the final class meeting.”

andre1I wanted my students to deepen their understanding of what they had learned in the course by engaging in a new process: Transforming the knowledge in their head into an object that they make using their hands. And then bring the object to the last class of the semester and explain to everyone what they created.

Complimentary to the one-page visual control (cumulative review), this assignment requires them to focus on one or a few key elements of what they learned that is personally important to them.

The image at right is a wonderful example of a student’s creative response to the challenge in my Lean leadership course. Using found material, wire, Victor Andre made a “BBC Pyramid.” The letters at the base, “RP,” stand for “Respect for People,” The letters at the top, “CI,” stand for “Continuous Improvement.” And the letters “BBC,” one on on each side of the pyramid, stand for “Beliefs,” Behaviors,” and Competencies.” What it means is Respect for People is the foundation upon which specific leadership Beliefs, Behaviors, and Competencies are necessary in order to realize “Continuous Improvement.”

castaneda1The image at right is another wonderful example of a student’s creative response to the challenge in my supply chain strategy course. Monica Castaneda created a diorama-type story about how to improve supply chain management. Her explanation revealed a depth of thinking and understanding that gave me confidence that she learned a great deal from the course.

By explaining to the class what they created, students engage in a kind of brief and informal oral exam that allows me to further evaluate the student’s knowledge and understand of how the course that I created impacted them and what they found to be useful. This is useful feedback that I use to help me improve the course.

I plan to refine the two visual controls assignments in my courses to have greater impact and effectiveness – not just for my courses, but for the benefit of students both at the conclusion of the course and long after they have graduated.

Final exams throw away professors’ opportunity to finish the course in a way that has a positive and memorable impact on students. I hope this blog post inspires you to follow in my footsteps and experiment with what I call “4a” (for the one-page visual control) and “4b” (for the physical object) visual controls. But please, don’t copy my 4b instructions, above, as they are being extensively revised for my courses next semester. Instead, do that Lean thing: think for yourself!

6 thoughts on “Final Exams, Final Mistake

  1. Jim

    I agree with your student Lauren and evidently so does the new Provost of my school as we just went to no final exams. The last class is now used for meaningful discussion of the course, it’s objectives and discussion on what the student learned over the semester. Of course the trick is getting each student in the course to participate the last night of class.

  2. Glen

    Interesting idea. (How) do you grade these? Or do you even give grades – if so, what is your average grade on the student projects/course? More generally, what is your philosophy on grading (does it serve a purpose)? Thanks,

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      Hi Glen – Sure, I grade these. Average grad is B or B-. Yes, grading serves a purpose – though a very limited purpose. Like any assignment, there are clear indications of who followed instructions and who did not; who thought about the assignment and who did not; who did good work and who did not. Also, like any assignment, it can be improved. And I have made significant improvements to this assignment for the current (Spring 17) semseter.

  3. tinakelso

    Very interesting idea. I like how the assignment requires the students to explain their rationale for the design and the significance of the components. What were the changes you made and how well did the revisions you made for Spring 2017 work?

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      The improvements were clarification of the assignment instructions. It resulted in better outcomes this semester (both visual control product and learning outcomes)


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