Final Exams: Who Needs ‘Em?

A good friend once described studying for the bar exam as ‘a Bataan Death March of the mind.’ That description both trivializes the horrors of the Death March and gestures toward what seems to me, from the outside, to be the mind-numbing, anxiety-inducing tedium of bar-exam preparation. Interminably long video lectures, flash cards, memorization of black letter law; it looks and sounds gruesome.  I’m glad I didn’t have to do it, but being at home with a partner studying for it wasn’t much fun either. (To her credit, my wife stayed calm throughout, disdaining the extreme nerves that afflict many of those attempting to clear this last hurdle in the obstacle race termed ‘an education in law.’)

I have never taken an exam like the bar. The closest I’ve come to experiencing some of the related stress was in my high-school days, thanks to the vagaries of an educational system that elevated grades in graduation finals to the status of a career-and-life-trajectory determiner. My Ph.D qualifiers, by contrast, were not as stressful as they could have been. My fellow-sufferers and I were not given well-defined reading lists but rather, granted access to a host of past exams so we could study according to trends visible in the questions asked every year. A reading list of sorts emerged as a result. Furthermore, as we had considerably leeway in picking and choosing questions to answer, a peculiar sort of directed reading became possible. I started early and very soon, found myself so saturated by my preparation I wished the exams would be held earlier. A curve-ball, though, lurked in my second qualifier, the one on Metaphysics, Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind, where I found questions waiting for me that I had not specifically prepared for. I constructed an essay on the spur of the moment, ‘winging it’ as it were. That done, I left New York for what I considered a well-earned vacation. (A few weeks later, a good friend gave me the news I had passed in true philosophy student style: ‘The results are out; no names were published, but everyone who took both exams passed; you took both exams; therefore you passed.’ In case you were interested, he teaches logic now.)

The scars, though, of twelve years of primary schooling marked by constant testing has left me despising anything resembling a final. I try to not administer finals in the classes I teach; my mind rebels at the thought of inflicting on students what I would not want done to myself. More to the point, I think final exams are pedagogically useless. (But more on that in another post, some other time.) A few years ago I considered attending law school. Many factors combined to turn me away from that decision, the staggering expense of a legal education among them. But by far the most important factor was that I simply could not be bothered subjecting myself to the ordeal of taking final exams. I had promised myself, as I sipped on a celebratory whisky after my Ph.D qualifiers, that that would be my last written ‘final.’ I’m glad I stuck with that decision. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

19 thoughts on “Final Exams: Who Needs ‘Em?

  1. I almost always five take-home finals. This gives the student a chance to put the course material in a valise without all the tension and stress that comes with wondering what the questions will ask.

    1. JR:

      I can assure you, my students and I live in the ‘real world.’ The work we do is real, as is the learning we gain from each other. So are the challenges we face and the sacrifices we make for the sake of gaining and imparting education.

      1. Samir, I never intended to imply otherwise, and was never my thought at all. I’ve never doubted that it is real quality work. Nowhere, whatsoever, did I say anything about a lack of sacrifice. I am not sure where that is coming from. All that I am saying is that sometimes, it seems to me, that stress, experiencing stressors, is a whorthwile endeavor in itself. I always found test taking to be good. I loved the pressure, and I think that I am better for it. All that I was referring to was the “without all the tension” llne, nothing more. No intended vitriol here. Sorry if I upset you. I’ve never been a teacher, and I am sure that in many cases, depending on the field, that take home tests, or no finals is a great way to go. I would suspect that in other fields, it’s not a good idea at all.

        The “real world” is a reference to the students, not the teachers or their work. It’s a common colloquialism.

  2. Bob,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’ve normally assigned a final writing assignment – one that asks them to draw upon material from over the entire semester. Sometimes the essays I ask them to write are longer ones, and sometimes they are asked to integrate several issues in one composition.

  3. This reminds me of job interviews. I’ve frequently been the interviewer in the classic software engineering interview. I’ve occasionally stood at the whiteboard being tested myself.
    It’s usually not much fun: 20 minutes spent on a pointy question can really be a career-and-life determiner. Then there’s the awkward situation when both the candidate and interviewer know a meltdown is underway while struggling to keep up appearances (that’s where an interviewer’s social skills are tested).

    The thing is pretty much anything can be asked of you, from esoteric EE facts, to nitty-gritty coding, to strategic engineering questions. The truth is that I regularly have to be able to shift gears in my job and have access to a grab-bag of knowledge to help me along. It’s hard to test for that….

    A struggling candidate once exclaimed to me “if I’d been told bit manipulation was going to be required for this interview, I would have studied it”.

    1. JP:

      Thanks for the comment. I think interviews also struggle with the same problem – how do you ‘test for’ the desirable skills in the limited time available? And how do you deal with the problem of ‘false negatives’ – perfectly good candidates who just interview badly.

      I’ve had one really awful interview where I couldn’t get one question right and the poor interviewer really just wanted to put me out of my misery but had to carry on for the sake of appearances!

  4. JR: Actually, the colloquialism “in the real world,” as it is commonly used, is supposed to suggest that somehow, the entire University environment is “unreal.” It is also commonly meant to imply that the people in it are soft and unprepared for “real life.” Finally, as commonly used, it is meant to insult, from the position of a lionized Protestant work ethic/suffering-is-virtue position.

    I’m not saying that this was *your* intended use of the expression, but since you referred to the common use, I thought we should be clear on what that common use is.

  5. A few substantive points on the question:

    1. There is absolutely no value whatsoever for memorizing anything in philosophy. If you are a surgeon and forget where the spleen is, while you’ve got someone opened up on the table, the consequences will be dire. There is no comparable consequence to forgetting something in philosophy. You simply look it up. In philosophy, understanding is everything. So, at a minimum, there is no reason that tests should not be open-book, open-notes, as mine are.

    2. The entire regime of testing, in subjects like philosophy, suffers from a lack of obvious raison d’etre. Students who really care about learning will learn, regardless of testing, and those who aren’t interested in learning will not be “forced to learn” by a test.

    2a. The idea is supposed to be that testing allows one to quantify *how much* the person understands in the given subject. The problem is, it is not at all obvious that understanding can be measured in a quantitative way in the humanities.

    2c. Consequently, it seems the only real reason for testing in subjects like these is so that students can have grades, which then makes it possible for the *next* set of institutions that they will confront, can select them or reject them.

    3. I would much prefer that grades be based on oral examination and in-class participation, but with the teaching loads that many of us have to carry, with no grading-help, this is simply not possible. So we are stuck with this.

    4. Finally, as to the deeper ethos reflected here, we are quite unfortunate to live in a culture that seems to have absorbed two unfortunate principles: (1) Work is the most valuable thing a person does in his/her life; (2) That things are only really valuable if they hurt. Both ideas, of course, are a legacy of Christianity—both Protestant and Catholic—and contradict both the pre-Christian, largely Greek lionization of Leisure and Contemplation (a la Aristotle), and the Hebraic view that pleasure is a gift from God and should never be rejected (which is why there is no Ascetic tradition in Judaism).

    1. Daniel, Emily Smith wrote a very interesting article in the Washington Times that is worth reading. It talks about that anti-conservative bias in education. (one doesn’t have to look very far to find that). It doesn’t imply soft, or unprepared, as you suggested, but it does make the university incubator seem often “unreal” as a statistical reflection of life outside the university. I would be curious to hear what you think.

      1. I’ve read the article. The accusation of liberal bias in the University is at least thirty years old. Without a more specific claim to which to reply, I’m not sure what you’re asking.

        Here’s one possible point: a majority of people in my region—southern Missouri—are Creationists. Thus, a “statistical reflection of life outside the university” would require us to teach Creationism in biology and geology classes. I would oppose that.

        I used to be a Conservative myself—I had my own column, in National Review, when I was 26 years old (entitled “New York Journal”) I left the movement partly because conservatism, as a political outlook, is at odds with the fundamental ethos of the United States, which is essentially Lockean (and thus, liberal), and partly because the movement itself has become so absurd and taken on such absurd spokespeople, that I could no longer take it seriously.

        The only respectable conservatisms are of the Burkean and Coleridgean varieties, and neither are possible in a society that eschews institutionalized class hierarchy. What people call conservatism, here, consists of the petty attitudes and less generous sentiments of the petite bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. (Ironically, precisely the people whom the Founders believed should not be allowed to vote.)


    1. Just because something is old does not render it irrelevant. I think that describing a belief system as “absurd” is proof in itself. I think the issue is not your “local” surroundings, but rather a broader view. Do you, such an educated man, consider creationism to be a reasonable point? And do you think it’s a reflection of what I am talking about? I don’t think that you really believe that. You seem like a pretty smart guy. What do you think of Don Boudreaux, for example, or The Mercatus Center At George Mason in general? Maybe that’s not “conservatism, exactly, but it’s more what I subscribe to. Let’s set aside social issues, (where I would argue that a classical liberal is more liberal than what passes for a “liberal” today.). Do you find them absurd as well? I do not presume that you do, it is a sincere question. Did you read Boudreaux’s op Ed on Milton Friedman and Keynesianism? What did you think of it? Do you find Paul Krugman to be absurd? If not, how would you describe him?

      I am classically liberal. The only thing more ridiculous than Dan Cathy’s views are the responses of mayors that allege to be liberal. I guess I am generally concerned about the role of government issue, and the concentration of modern day “liberals” teaching it, and what it portends for our future. This may be outside of your bailiwick.

      I think that the article was very telling and just because it’s old, that doesn’t make it unimportant. I personally try to discuss issues with people of different views, to become more well-rounded, something that I fear is missing in today’s academic environment. Do you find that concern to be totally unfounded? You don’t think that makes me an absurd creationist, do you? If I was against Aca, or I said that I like the tea parties concern of the constitution, would that make me a racist?

      Do you think that affirmation bias is a legitimate issue? You’ve had many even handed and interesting responses on this blog that I have enjoyed reading, and you’ve led me to some conclusions that I might not have otherwise considered, and actually agree with.

      That is what I would like to see in universities, rather than churning out a bunch of people who exist in an echo chamber. Do you agree with any of this at all?

      1. JR:

        I agree with you entirely about the idea the age of an idea and its validity. Oftentimes, an idea is old, precisely because its validity is well established.

        I only made the point I did about the “liberal bias” charge, because at this point, the charge needs to be made with far greater specificity, in order to mean anything. It’s the *general* accusation that’s old, in the sense of being well-rehearsed. At this point, then, I’d have to hear a specific allegation, before I got exercised about it. (And I should add that there is very little by way of liberal bias in the university around these parts. Our entire business school—which is the most powerful institution on campus—is populated with right wingers and fundamentalist Christians. One of them, Dr. Wesley Scroggins, was responsible for the banning of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” in the Republic School System (Republic is a city just a few miles from Springfield, where I live).

        I also agree entirely about the Chick Fil-A business. The company and its owners are crazy, but that’s not a crime, and certainly not anything a Mayor should have anything to do with.

        I am less resolved on the issue of Classical Liberalism versus the contemporary Democratic Socialist (DS) variety. Philosophically, I am inclined to agree that Classical Liberalism is the only way to go, in a modern, secular society—my original love, as I already explained, was Burkean and especially Coleridgean conservatism, but the world has changed too much for either of those to be viable—but I am finding it increasingly difficult to believe that Classical Liberalism is possible in a world like the kind we have today. Too many large, multi-national corporations. Too many gigantic countries with too many disparities between populations. Too much pressure on natural resources. I am starting to think that some sort of central-planning is necessary. The difficulty, of course, is how to do it well.

        My region is a classic example. If we have a few more summers like this one, there won’t be a single farm left alive in my state, or the states bordering us. What happens then? To food prices? To all the people that depend on the rural economy? To the landscape itself—i.e. what happens when half of Missouri turns into Arizona? No one is even talking about these things, let alone planning for them, and I fear that the result is going to be a major regional social and economic catastrophe.

        Finally, because I feel very strongly about the spirit of your post, I want to agree entirely on the importance of speaking with people who do not agree with you. There’s nothing worse than an echo chamber, and certainly, the Right has no monopoly on echo-chamber discourse.


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