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Final Exams

Final Exams

I just finished classes on Thursday and now I’m in finals territory. I have two papers and two cumulative exams between this week and next.

I abhor cumulative exams. They are a total time drain and I have yet to feel productive while studying for one. It inevitably turns into a cramming session, no matter how far ahead I plan, where I spend hours trying to find clever ways to remember the spelling of chemical X or the sequence of generals in a particular war….

Anyway, I liked Steve Horwitz’s recent facebook update that explains why this method is lame, particularly in this generation:

“Why an open books, open notes final exam, Professor Horwitz?

Because life is an open book exam. You can always look stuff up. Expecting you to memorize dates and people and names of laws is silly in a world where we have the Internet in our pockets. The hard part is having good frameworks with which to analyze information and tell intelligible stories. The implication, of course, is that you can expect an exam that will focus on the big picture and your ability to synthesize information and compare and contrast the ideas of authors we’ve read and the events of eras we’ve studied. THOSE are things you cannot look up on your smartphone.”

Let’s hope the sentiment spreads throughout upstate New York by May 2012.


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I have to disagree, life isn’t an open book exam. In the the context of lawyers negotiating a deal, you can’t look up a term the other side uses that you don’t understand. You have to know the points of law that govern your contract, or your side will be taken to the cleaners. You can’t google it, chart it out, any of that stuff. You have to go in knowing everything you need to know.

Pure BS. There is no such thing as thinking without knowledge, or knowledge without facts. You can look up trivia but if you have to look up EVERYTHING, your knowledge will always be fragmentary and without context.

Real learning requires depth. You can’t look that up when you need it.

I agree with Awing1 and irv. Albeit memorization is brain exercise (the more you do, the easier it gets), overmuch memorization should not even be necessary in most subjects. We fairly easily can remember the details of things that we are truly interested in and that we understand.

Cumulative exams test whether or not you can use the material that has been presented to you. The way to do well on them is to avoid having to study for finals. This is how you do it.

1. Read the assignment, as assigned, before class.

2. Take good notes.

3. Re-write your notes, smoothing them out. (I always typed them.)

4. Re-read your notes back to the last test. Do this two or three times a week, preferably in connection with smoothing our your notes for your most recent class.

5. The day before the final, re-read all your notes twice, go out to the local pub, have no more than one or two beers, and get to bed early.

6. This works for everything except the math-based classes (Chemistry, physics, engineering). for those classes, you also have to do the problems before class as assigned, and know what you did wrong with them when you walk out of that class.

If you can do #6 for you math-based classes, you won’t have to study for the finals in those classes, other than make up a well organized 3×5 card with the stuff you need to know on it. If it’s done right, and you are allowed to use it, you won’t need it.

    Kathleen McCaffrey in reply to Valerie. | December 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    I’m a pretty diligent student but my “math-based” courses that have had cumulative exams almost purposefully give far more material than anyone can consume. For example, the average grade for the final in my first college science course was a 50, the rationale? “Well you could never know everything anyway.” Naturally these things are curved but I think it’s more substantive to ask for an explanation of how the theory is applied, or a straightforward problem using the principles, than to ask a question about part of the course that was non-essential.

    And, several of my friends have noted that their open-notes finals were the most difficult precisely because the questions entailed critical thinking (drawing comparisons, proposing ideas, trends, applying theory etc.) as opposed to memorization.

    Another one of my friends, an organic chemist, noted that he excelled in the field because of the deep understanding he had of the underlying theory, as opposed to the other students in his course who were merely trying to memorize as much as possible to fulfill their pre-med requirement.

    Of course we need “knowledge.” My point is that having a sound understanding of theory – particularly at the undergraduate level – is more important to test than boring declarative facts that can be easily googled if you have a sense of what you need (ie, if you have a good handle on theory). For example, when I worked at a newspaper I pitched a story about a crisis in Africa. I didn’t know much about the country where the crisis hit hardest, but I did read that it had been under French rule. I am familiar with development economic theory, which allowed me to compare the success/failures of property rights in the area since – traditionally – French civil law has left a legacy of poor legal systems.

      I had lots of tests where the average grade was below 50, often about 30, although these were usually interim tests and not the finals. Those were teaching tests, and the professors were looking to see what the class did and did not know.

      As for the math-based classes being purposefully designed to overload, that’s just the ordinary workload for a technical course. You really are supposed to spend about 6 hours a week on it, outside of class and labs.

      When I registered for my freshman year of college, I wrote down the schedule that I expected to take, and it was rejected by someone who told me “Nobody takes Biology I and Chem I at the same time. You’ll flunk.” I went back to my advisor (the head of the Chemistry department) and he laughed and said, “That’s what every Chem major takes. An then he told me how to get a guaranteed “A” in biology, which is the steps 1-5 I’ve given you.

      Those same 5 steps, plus a 1-page outline on how to write a Constitutional Law essay will get you out of law school with honors.

Ms. McCaffrey would be wise to embrace the advice previous commenters have so generously offered. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Not because they’re old, but because they serve a real purpose to the student and society. 🙂

nordic_prince | December 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I agree with Awing1, irv, and janitor. “Knowing facts” is superior to “googling facts,” as indicated in this article ( by the cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham.

Whether the exam is open-book or not is immaterial. You’re being compared to your peers who all have the same difficulties you do; the exams are then graded on a curve.

The solution is to identify your competent peers and sabotage their efforts. You don’t have to kill them, just prevent them from studying, or arriving on time. If some of them arrive by car, leak some information to the local occupy movement to snarl traffic. Encourage friends to have a party next door while they’re studying. Be creative!

Henry Hawkins | December 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm

When the power goes off and all the batteries have gone dead, I will rule the world.