Posted by: omcivics | March 27, 2008

Should final exams be final?

There are many reasons why the final exam is looked upon as being final;
but would it be better to see it instead as simply a milepost
along the road of lifelong learning
Stupid question. Of course, final examinations should be final! Or should they? It seems that at almost every level of formal education the class ends with a final exam. Typically, students will “cram” for the final. In addition, it is customary to base a large percentage of a student’s grade on the final exam. Likewise, students often complain that the results of the final do not accurately reflect their true knowledge of the subject matter. Even teachers and professors sometimes dread the finals. Certainly, finals cause stress for all involved.

For many students attending schools and universities in Thailand, the finals are nearly over; however, for those attending the International Schools, the finals season will soon begin. Having taught students from Pratom 4 through university for forty years, I now believe that the final exam should not be final. Why?

Let us consider the three most frequently encountered justifications for the final exam in the first place. It measures what the student learned from the class. It helps differentiate between failing, mediocre and excellent students. It motivates students to pay attention and learn. Now, let’s examine assertion to see if it holds water.

Do finals measure knowledge?

Take the first assertion: Finals measure what the student learned from the class. This assumes that there is an item on the final that corresponds to everything the student should have learned; that the final exclusively evidences the learning that has taken place. Yet when students complain that finals often contain questions about material that was not addressed in class or in the required reading, one might properly conclude that the test is possibly poorly constructed.

No two classes are ever taught precisely the same. Thus, the teacher carefully reviewing every lesson plan before drafting an entirely new final for each class can only overcome this problem. As any student can attest, too often teachers simply use the same final exam from year to year, perhaps pausing only to reorder the same questions to prevent wholesale cheating. Of course, some would argue the reverse: that the problem can only be overcome by the wise teacher designing the final exam before the course begins, and then gearing each lesson towards the questions on the final exam.

The other problem with this assertion is that it fails to recognize that there is relevant information a conscientious student might have learned from self-study or group-study that was never presented by the instructor. In a good learning environment, students should be encouraged to pursue knowledge individually or learn from one another by sharing information and experiences. This often helps the weaker students in a class to see other possibilities that may not have been presented by the teacher or the texts.

Unfortunately, these are unplanned learning outcomes and most probably will not be measured by the final exam. These considerations certainly call into question the common assertion that a final exam is necessary to measure what the student learned from taking a particular class.

Finals distinguish students?

The second claim that final exams help to differentiate between failing, mediocre and excellent students is rather suspect also.

We like to believe that good students will perform well on tests. So let’s assume our final exam has internal validity. Let’s assume further that the questions on the final are a legitimate sample of what actually has been taught in the class.

The associated axiom goes like this: If students do well on the final, they are good students. John is a student. John did well on the final; ergo, John is a good student. Logically, this is correct. But consider this maxim: Joe did not do well on the final; therefore, Joe is not a good student. Is this a non sequitur, an error in logic? We know from experience that there are many reasons that may prevent a “good student” from doing well on a test.

I have known students who are conscientious, always come to class, takes copious notes, ask questions and do well on assigned tasks, but when it comes to taking the final, they often fail or do poorly. In such cases, I have no doubt the student knows the material expected of them. If I talk with them over coffee and ask them essentially the same questions on the exam, I am usually pleasantly surprised that they do, indeed, know the material expected of them.

I remember once Dr Glen Blair telling his students immediately before administering a final exam that if they didn’t know the answer to a question, they should rewrite the question so they could answer their new question. I was, of course, amazed. His explained was that, “I want to find out what my students know, not what they don’t know.” I now see there is great wisdom in his approach.

Finals motivate students to learn?

Finally, the assertion that final exams motivate students to pay attention and learn makes the disastrous assumption that the grade on the final exam is important to the student. This is probably true to some extent at the upper and university levels, where over time students have been conditioned to strive for good grades.

However, the proposition that final exams make grades important to the student, seems patently false – at least at the lower grade levels. Students at the lower levels are far more motivated by praise, personal attention and playing games that are fun.

Certainly there are better ways to motivate students than putting them under the stress of a final exam.

Your score

So, what use is the final exam? I would maintain that the best use of the final examination is for the teacher’s own information and self-improvement. First, it is necessary to design exams so that they help you to determine how well your students achieved the objectives you set for them. Another purpose of finals is to keep you (and them) focused on achieving the defined goals. If many students failed to do well on a particular question or part of the exam. The teacher should take the blame and devise a better, more interesting method of teaching that portion of the course in the future.

Use the collective results to help you, as a teacher, determine how well you taught the class. Teachers who believe that all they have to do is “cover the material” or “assign” the material. That’s akin to pouring the knowledge into students’ heads. Proper use of the collective results by the teacher might cause her or him to re-evaluate their role in the learning process.

By using a per item analysis, the final exam lets me know where I need to improve my teaching strategies.

Also, the exam results themselves may be used as a method of teaching. For example, I may take the time to go over the final exam in detail with my class. Using selected answers as discussion starters I may discuss with the students the mistakes they made. Perhaps I can help individual students understand their mistakes and understand why they made those mistakes.


The final exam is never final. It should be used not as a measuring tool but as a learning tool for both my students and myself. It is just another step in life’s learning process. The result will be improving my teaching strategies and fine tuning the next ‘final’ exam. And so on.



  1. i think final exam isn’t good idea for indonesian education.because, the goverment use the exam to get the final score.

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