April grades bring May finals. This month is the month of stress among students and faculty alike across universities. And with COVID-19, the stress only increases. Although we’ve written about stressful group projects in the past (and received some counter-arguments), finals are a very different beast.
Finals are a normal part of schoolwork; most of us have had them since high school. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re useful, or easy to deal with.
According to the American Test Anxieties Association, somewhere between 16 to 20 percent of Americans have high test anxiety. They also found that the majority of students felt more stressed by tests than anything else in their lives.
Some instructors avoid this stress by assigning final projects or papers that replace the final, which is fine, and much preferable. If we have more time to work on a large assignment — one that we can ask the professor for help with during the semester — then it makes sense for them to be worth a lot of points.
However, if little-to-no help is being offered from the course’s instructor while we take the exam, students are obviously going to do much worse.
What is not fine or preferable is when instructors assign both a final project or paper and a final exam. If students are given two assignments that have a large effect on their grades and require extensive amounts of studying and effort, then they will most likely end up with one of two outcomes; either they do poorly on one or both of the finals, or they score high grades on both at the expense of their mental health.
These complaints are universal. However, more accommodation is required than this, as COVID-19 has caused many classes to remain online this semester. So, a whole new issue is brought about. Even if a professor has software enabled to try to prevent it, if an exam is online, students can still just look through a textbook or handwritten notes in between questions.
In this case, a student who cheats is far more likely to get high marks than a student who is honest, but takes tests poorly. Alternatively, if the final in this hypothetical situation was a project or paper rather than an exam, the students would be able to put work into it over time, ask their professor for advice or clarification and the outcome would more likely reflect the effort put in.
Furthermore, why is it even against the rules to look at notes or a textbook during an exam in the first place? In some cases, it does make sense; there is a level of background information in most fields that has to be memorized, and some fields like criminal justice require an incredibly in-depth knowledge of the subject matter.
But, in almost every field, it is not uncommon to have to look things up when you need them. If you were a biologist and you were preparing to conduct an experiment, but you forgot some important knowledge beforehand, you would not fail. You could look at your notes and carry on. If you were a statistician and you couldn’t remember what your data was, you could easily check it and correct it.
Obviously, there will still be students who do amazing work all semester and ace their final exams, but they will likely realize their situation isn’t the case for all students. As for faculty, think of it this way: would you rather have to grade tons and tons of uniform exams, or look at papers and projects, all personalized according to the student who created them?