Many colleges, universities and now even high schools follow the same routine for final exams. Extra time is often needed for the exams, so the schedule is changed for the last week or so of school. A class that normally meets at 10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday might test at 1 pm on Thursday. Sometimes rooms are even changed, often when different sections of the same course are combined for the final exam.
But changing the schedule like this, regardless of the reasoning, changes the outcome of the tests for many students.
Students of all ages and abilities get used to routine, and changing routine is always difficult. Students with learning difficulties often find such change excruciating. Changing the time of day, even if the class is held in the same windowless room, changes the atmosphere for such a student. Changes in sounds or lighting can be incredibly distracting.
Add to the physical differences the fact that this is a test, and a pretty important test at that. Many times college and university courses will base a grade solely off a mid-term and final exam. Students who do poorly in classes will already feel the pressure from the situation, especially if they need to achieve a high grade on the final exam in order to pass the class.
Students who feel such intense pressure, especially when put into an unfamiliar environment, are more likely to experience test anxiety. Test anxiety can cause even the most diligent student to forget important concepts. The inability to remember those ideas during the test then creates more tension, which inhibits memory even more, and so on. The school’s final exam schedule has set up the perfect situation for such a vicious cycle to occur.
Of course, test results from such student performances are poor, so students often fail or receive low grades in courses, indicating lack of learning, when they did have some command of the material. Instructors don’t get an accurate picture of student learning overall since these students are in the mix. That means faculty are misinformed about what material they need to prepare differently for the next class based upon test scores. This is true of high school instructors, as well. High school students may end up taking summer courses they don’t really need, and graduation rates drop. Likewise, colleges and universities get lower completion numbers, fewer continuing students, and even more dropouts.
Obviously, the current final exam schedule is not appropriate to measure learning. Final exams need to be scheduled at regular times in regular classrooms with as little change as possible. Some instructors argue that they need twice the regular class time in order to give the final exam. That’s fine; use the last two class periods for the test, giving one half each day. Another argument is from community colleges who often say they feel the need to ready their students for the university experience, which follows the traditional final schedule. But change needs to start somewhere. Where is the proof that changing the schedule for final exams really helps students perform better in a regular finals schedule later?
The modified system of keeping classes at the normal time works better simply because it is more likely to measure students’ real learning. This system also helps out instructors who are scrambling to get everything graded by their institution’s deadline. Instructors who give a written portion could even give that a week prior to the end of classes in order to give themselves more time to grade and perhaps even time to give feedback to the students about their responses, creating yet another learning opportunity.
Final exams are supposed to measure student learning in a class. Changing the format to a regular schedule is good for institutions, instructors, and most of all students.