It’s hard to stay motivated without exams, and final exams are what motivate students to review all the material, putting the concepts together.
Granted, it is unfortunate that final exams all occur at the same time. As a student, I suffered severe stress during finals, and as an instructor, I see that finals week takes its toll in many ways. Formerly well-dressed, attractive young people come to class in a zombie-like stupor, pale, unkempt and clutching 20 oz. bottles of some stimulant enhanced beverage. Gone are the smiles from their faces, having been replaced by prodigious crops of stubble interspersed with acne. Their desperation for deliverance from poor study habits calls to mind an image of some divine e-mail account where God must need a spam filter to catch all the “please let me get an A” messages. Like Nigerian scammers, they offer promises too good to be true- “I’ll never visit a porn site again if you let me have a B on the biology final!”, “I’ll tell my roommate it wasn’t really the dog that puked in her sneaker if you let me pass calculus!”, and so on.
Despite the inherent difficulties of final exam week, I see genuine academic progress as well. Students look over old exams and learn to solve problems they missed the first time. Forgotten terminology is recalled and flashes of insight abound as the later and earlier concepts come together.
Final exams are a good way to give students a “second chance”. Many students have initial difficulty with a concept but eventually master it. Final exams provide an opportunity for students to show that they truly have learned more than what showed on other exams. The platitude about “learning from mistakes” means little if students are only tested once on material.
Many of my colleagues view students as having a mercenary attitude toward education, only learning if there is a grade involved. While I agree that learning should be its own end, I sympathize with students when it comes to allocation of time. If I don’t give a final in my math class, but (say) their biology teacher gives one in hers, I can’t fault them for pouring over biology flashcards instead of brushing up on derivative rules. We tell them that grades are important, reward high grades with scholarships, and spread rumors about grades being important in the post-college world. As instructors, we create the culture of grade-greed and are forced to deal with the consequences.
While I would love for students to see the value of mathematics, I must remember that teaching, like politics, is an art of the possible. Students are motivated by grades more than anything else, and so there must be final exams. To those who argue that final exams are stressful and unnecessary, I say this:
You are correct. Now prove it by learning more than it takes to get the grade you desire. Prove it by reading course-related books that aren’t assigned. Prove it by coming to class and paying attention instead of trying to take notes and send text messages at the same time. When students rise up and show us exactly how unnecessary grades are, when they assail us with the full force of their thirst for knowledge, when they leave us in awe of their burning curiosity, then, and only then, will we be able to lay down our red pens simply teach.