Opinion: Traditional final exams are impractical

With increasingly negative stigma surrounding the final exam period, it’s time to bid farewell to traditional final exams.


Aaliya Luthra

Finals exams do not allow students to accurately demonstrate their knowledge from the semester. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Molly Koch, Staff Writer

As I said goodbye to my mother at the train station, heading back to New York City after a cozy Thanksgiving break, I remembered the intense stress that shows up right around finals season. As a first-year student, I had heard about how overwhelming this time of year can get — but I never knew it could be this bad.

Final exams are meant to demonstrate a student’s academic development and ability to recall material covered in class. These timed tests, however, are an excessive source of worry because they have such a significant impact on grades, and there is little time between finishing all the material and the exam date. At this point, traditional final exams are ineffective and pointless.

For one, a student’s capacity to quickly and efficiently memorize a large amount of content is a major factor in how well they perform on a final exam. The problem with making memory the foundation of success is that students don’t actually learn anything in class. Cognitive scientists Daniel Willingham and Robert Bjork made this observation after testing college students to see how much information they could recall two weeks after the test. The study concluded that over 90% of the material had been forgotten by the students after two weeks.

“I think that finals don’t give room for you to explore and understand what you’ve learned,” Tisch first-year Sydni Williams said. “Just memorizing information is not helpful, especially when you’ll just forget it.”

However, Williams also noted that her final exams work differently because she’s an acting student.

“We have scenes, but we don’t get graded on [them], which I particularly like, since someone normally wouldn’t be in the real world,” she said. “There’s not much pressure; you do what you know how to do.”

Traditional final exams put unnecessary pressure on students. According to Pew Social Trends research, stress related to final exams and midterms is the main contributing factor for overall stress of close to one-third of college students in the United States. On top of that, I’ve noticed that many students stop paying attention in class probably because they are more anxious about upcoming assignments in other classes. 

“Finals are really overbearing because of how much work there is from so many different classes that are all due around the same time,” LS first-year Yasmin Minos said. “In addition to preparing for all the work finals bring, we’re also expected to complete homework and readings as well. It feels really overwhelming, especially as a first-year to be experiencing such a heavy workload.”

NYU’s Latin motto is “Perstare et Praestare,” which is generally translated as “to persevere and to excel.” This motto seems like it would be motivational during finals season. You persevere by learning from your mistakes, which allows you to excel. Yet final exams forbid that. They exclusively punish mistakes. If we can’t even learn anything from finals, what good are they, especially when some final exams account for 50% of final grades?

LS first-year Danielle Brice said one of their professors allows them to resubmit their midterm and final essays to improve their grades, which Brice found helpful.

“I truly can persevere and excel this way, especially when it weighs so much,” Brice said. “Otherwise, with fact-based exams, us students are left with two options: right and wrong.”

In terms of a solution, although final exams are not given directly by the university, professors should reconsider how they give their finals. Sure, some classes, particularly advanced sciences, would be much harder to run without a final exam. But timed exams, even in such rigorous courses, are largely not reflective of the actual field of study. Scientific researchers have time to develop and rerun experiments — people who work in the humanities often have no time restriction at all. These types of classes could benefit from project-based finals. 

Project-based evaluations boost student engagement and with evaluation and applied knowledge,

they alter the emphasis of instruction from learning to equip students for success in the classroom to learning to succeed in the workplace. This move from testing knowledge to measuring proficiency fosters critical thinking and problem-solving, two fundamental components of the liberal arts and sciences, which NYU centers at its core.

Personally, I only have one final that is not a timed exam, which is for my creative writing class. All I have to do is reflect on how I would revise my workshop pieces from the semester. This reflective assignment not only lacks a component of stress, but actually makes me feel like I’ve learned enough throughout the semester to properly revise my work. 

Final exams cannot be the deciding factor for higher education systems to determine the progress of its students. There is far too much pressure on the ability to function successfully while stressed than on the actual knowledge students have acquired during the semester. Whether it’s changing the format or whether it’s not having one at all, it’s time to bid farewell to traditional final exams.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Molly Koch at [email protected].