Finals and retention: Exams are not one-size-fits-all


Jake Eiseman, Editor-in-Chief

Header Image: The College Post

Every year — every semester even —  the Collegian publishes something about final exams, discussing the infamous stress and crunch that comes with them as well as ways to cope with that stress and succeed. Because we detail this topic so often in a variety of ways, we considered not running a piece regarding it this semester. But, after some discussion, it became apparent that the reason we continually write about the same themes around finals season is that there has been no meaningful change or improvements that would lead to another perspective.

Is there not some way to appreciate exams without causing hundreds of students to feel like their future depends on one two-hour memorization assignment?

Almost all exams, even the most complex and broad, are just efforts in memorization. No matter how much application is necessary to succeed, or how broadly the content from the course is used to fulfill the exam goals, students will continue to stow content into their working memory for the allotted time of the exam, but simply do not have the emotional or physiological bandwidth to encode much, if any, of that information to their long-term memory as a result of the mass workload of finals week. For example, in order to recall those psychology terms, I had to go back to my notes from Psy 155 course rather than remember it despite taking several exams on the subject. I know this is a personal example, but if you don’t believe me, let’s look to some experts.

A 2013 experiment performed by MIT neuroscientists showed that even young students who achieved very high test scores, or sharp increases in test scores, did not show any increase in cognitive ability or ability to reason surrounding abstract thoughts. As we are trained to prepare for testing at a middle school age, and continue to be tested throughout academia, these results are concerning. 

The Guardian

An undergraduate level experiment was also performed at Rutgers University which showed that only about 79 percent of information from a final exam was remembered by students five months after the exam was administered, and only 67 percent was retained from prior exams. In just five months, on average, students completely lost more than 20 percent of what was learned, and as time increases, so does the knowledge that is forgotten. What happens after years?

University of Georgia professor Kathrin Stanger-Hall found through testing that multiple choice format exams severely limit critical thinking and encourage students to memorize rather than learn, think linearly rather than critically and reduce their cognitive ability.

The body of research regarding testing, retention and performance still needs to be expanded, but in order to put this into a perspective that can be applicable to La Salle, I believe that providing some testing alternatives could go a long way to increasing the performance and academic abilities of students of all majors. 

As a result of the remote modality of the spring and fall 2020 semesters, many professors at La Salle shifted their examinations to “take home exams” or asynchronous open-book exams that tasked students with applying knowledge from their courses in very detailed situations or complex combinations of theories and tools. These types of exams not only significantly reduce levels of stress due to the long period of time they can be worked on, but also negate the effects of memorization and loss of retention because in order to answer the questions students have to truly understand and think critically about their responses in essay format rather than memorize and quickly recall answers. 

Many professors have opted to switch their final exams entirely over to essays or projects, which many students have found helpful in alleviating exam crunch, as these projects normally take place over longer spans of time and can be completed at one’s own pace. Additionally, final essays are often cumulative, and task students to apply and synthesize knowledge from throughout the semester, while also incorporating independent research, which shows critical thinking skills and ability to relate the content to situations outside of the course.

Verywell Mind

Finally, a somewhat uncommon alternative to final exams that I would like to propose is the academic presentation and research report. There are numerous reports and findings, particularly in the business, training and psychology fields which imply that by teaching others, we are better able to not only understand the content, but retain the knowledge over longer periods of time, even after leaving higher education to enter the job market. Learning-by-teaching methods are a great way to provide students with an alternative to testing and bring in unique concepts and perspectives to a course, because students can be graded on their ability to master a subject and effectively present it to and teach others. This can be done through presentations, study group sessions, independent research between small groups and a variety of other, flexible methods.

We highly suggest that Lasallian professors at least consider some of these alternatives when planning their courses in the future. Obviously there is a large body of evidence that supports that exams and testing are beneficial in many cases. But, no matter how it’s cut, when a student has five heavily-weighted final exams all within three days of each other, mastery, understanding and knowledge retention cannot be expected. So, if any instructors feel they may be at least interested in incorporating an alternative final, we at the Collegian would highly encourage it, and look forward to a potential shift away from the finals crunch in the future.

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