As we know from cognitive psychology that humans are most creative and learn things better when they are relaxed. I can also relate to this. I do much better in complex problem solving at home rather than in a test. Therefore, I have a hard time understanding why semester final exams are always given such importance and a student's knowledge is judged on the basis of these test results.

I think that what I have learned in 3-4 months can not be properly tested in only 2.5 to 3 hours. Why are exams in general are given this much importance when we know that test results do not fully reflect a person's potential?

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    Interesting anecdote: There's a book by Ko and Rossen, Teaching Online: A Practical Guide, about best-practices for fully-online distance teaching. They present a sample course syllabus for a fully-online course. It still includes one proctored exam that students must physically appear for in-person. (p. 129) Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 2:04
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    Because the revision stress makes you eating chocolate and that has a lot of calories. ;-) Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 3:48
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    "I think that what I have learned in 3-4 months can not be properly tested in only 2.5 to 3 hours. " Why? Of course, one cannot test everything you learned, but one could test a well-justified sample. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 9:46
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    Hey @DanielR.Collins, Thanks for the suggestion. I will definitely check that out.
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:33
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    @CaptainEmacs, lol! good one!
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:57

4 Answers 4


What's the alternative?

Exams have been criticized since before I can remember, but if someone has come up with something better I'm not aware of it, e.g.

  • Oral exams would "work", except those would also be high-pressure examinations, and they are also very time-consuming. Furthermore, unless one records the oral exam, it would also be difficult to resolve grading disputes.
  • Homework-based assessment is vulnerable to cheating, since the student can get 3rd-party help with the assignments and it would not be easy to catch. Students can also work in groups, with associated problems (it's quite common for a few people in a group to do most/all the work and the rest just copy them).
  • Subjective assessment where the teacher simply assigns a grade to each student is vulnerable to biases (which is part of the reason why grading schemes and/or blinded assessment are common).
  • Finally, there's a school of thought that if you are unable to reproduce the learned material, under pressure, you haven't actually learned it.
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    Other drawback to oral exams is there's no hard record of what happened. Instructor could punt a student for biased reasons (my dad says he saw that in professional school in the 60's), student could challenge without reason and instructor has no way to defend, etc. Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 1:59
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    Good point - edited.
    – Allure
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 3:37
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    @DanielR.Collins That's why it used to be always a committee of two in Germany's oral examinations. Not sure whether it is still the case with the shift to Anglosaxon-type system. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 4:24
  • I think we should look for new options as well. Thanks for the answer btw :)
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:32
  • In my university, oral exams are held by a committee of two people, and open to the public (so typically other students attend, especially those who are next in line to be tested). Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 22:54

What matters is (or at least should be) what you know at the end of the course, not in the middle of it. Thus it is legitimate to have some form of end-of-term assessment, and expected that is should have a disproportional weight, although it need not be in the form of a single exam; one might include student projects or term papers in addition to (or in place of) a final exam.

The difficulty is in ascertaining that the work submitted reflects the knowledge of the individual student (or group of students if there is a group evaluation). For term papers there are plagiarism tools; it is possible to test the knowledge acquired during a project by having specialized written or oral questions. However, it is not always possible or desirable to proceed as so.

The easiest way to assess students in a practical manner very often remains a final exam taken under similar conditions by all the candidates. (Of course this depends very much the discipline.)

In my experience, constructing an exam where students can, over the course of 2.5 or 3hrs, answers questions in a manner that fairly reflects their knowledge of the material taught over an entire term is not easy, and not always successful, but a well-designed exam should allow the more knowledgeable students to outperform the less knowledgeable ones, at least on average.

Of course, some students get lucky and some have a bad day, but in a large group the bulk of the students should be coarsely ranked by their level of knowledge of the material covered in class, else the exam is a failure of the instructor and remedial actions might be considered.

  • The problem is preparing a 'well-designed' exam! I have seen a lot of bright students who feel that their exams fail to evaluate their knowledge and their curricula is not well-designed to provide a minimum background in the subject they chose to major (Maybe because I come from a remote part of Asia where access to quality education is very limited). Anyways, Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer. I really appreciate it.
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:23
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    yes it is definitely not easy to prepare a good exam, and moreover what the instructor considers a good exam students might beg to differ. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 23:39

Assessment theory is a complex and large subject.

We must ask why we are assessing students. Off the top of my head, I can think of 3 possibilities:

  • To give students a target to aim for. An understanding of what it means to have learnt the subject.
  • To allow both student and teacher to assess progress and best plan where a students future time would be best focused.
  • To certify that a student is safe or capable of performing a particular task (like a driving test, or a professional competence test).
  • In order to rank students so that an employer can choose between them.

I think final exams probably do a bad job of the first two. The can do a good job of the third if the test is well constructed to actually be examining what the student will be doing in their professional role.

But I expect that we focus a lot on the final reason (to the great determent of the education and society in general). Exams are a really efficient and clean cut way of ranking people even if not the basis of genuinely useful criteria. The question is, what are they ranking them on the basis of? Almost certainly not the exact knowledge that an employer wants. Personally I think that if an employer wants to rank people then they should set an exam that actaully tests the thing want. But that's not the world we live in. Since an employer almost certainly doesn't genuinely care about your knowledge of medieval France, but just want some way to distinguish people, exams are an easy way to do that.

Also exams are probably the least work for professors of most assessment methods.

  • Thanks Ian! You provided exactly the type of answer I was looking for. The first two points should be the main purpose of an assessment if we are looking to educate people and the last two points set the standard of a training process. I think we need to decide if we want to 'educate' or 'train' people. I hope one day online education platforms like khan academy will turn these traditional ways of assessment and evaluation on their head.
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:01
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    I like to add that my last comment wasn't trying to suggest that professors are lazy. I literally wouldn't have enough hours in my life to assess all my students by more holistic methods. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:07
  • @IanSudbery - I taught mathematics, and always told my students that the purpose of my final was to see if they were able to organize, understand, and use a relatively large number of ideas and techniques, and I tried hard to design finals that would give a reasonable measure of their success in this "project." Your first point pretty much sums up my approach to finals. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 21:39
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    @ChrisLeary It is possible to design final exams that serve the first purpose. I think it both rare and hard though. I suspect it is different in different disciplines. Also, did this assessment have to be a final exam? What is added by doing it under exam conditions in a limited time, with little access to the materials you'd have access to in real life? Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 23:13
  • @Ian Sudbury - This is a problem I wrestled with my entire career. When I do research, I have pretty much all the time I want, and access to my own library as well as the University's. I tried giving exams in which the students had access to their notes and the textbook. My impression was that they didn't prepare as well as they should have. They spent more time looking through their book and notes than they did working on the test. I never liked exams as a student, and never liked them as a professor. Unfortunately, I was never able to come up with a better alternative. Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 15:54

There are really two questions here: "what are pros/cons of final exams" and "why are we using them", which have very little to do with each other.

The answer to the second question is it's been traditionally done that way. Another post here rather peculiarly says that oral exams 'would work', when actually in many countries, oral exams are the main or a very common form of assessment. It is unlikely that they work better in those countries, rather, the traditions have been different. The main source of pedagogical expertise for a majority of teachers is their experience as students. There's very little over the course of their subsequent careers that has any chance to change that, and little incentive.

To make a point, consider an easier question: why do we still have 45min+45min chalkboard lectures on standard courses, like mathematics for economists or electomagnetism? They are really hard to defend. A lecture is a rigid format that goes too fast for some students and too slow for others. It is way too long; studies suggest that after 15-20 minutes, most people lose focus. It's not really interactive; 90% of students are too shy to ask questions in a large audience. It's imperfect with lecturer introducing confusing mistakes, talking to the blackboard, writing in too small letters not visible from last row. Why not replace lectures with high-quality videos, of just right length, with superb visualization, sound and text, pedagogically tested (see 3Blue1Brown series as an example)? As these are courses given every year at thousands of universities, such videos can be produced at a fraction of the cost of the current working time wasted on the lectures. Contact teaching resources can then be used in more productive ways.

Yet every September thousands of lecturers walk into classrooms, take the chalk and say "A matrix is..." Why? Because that's the way it's always been.

Coming back to final exams, they may have real merits, or they can be amended with post-hoc rationalizations, but that's beside the point: even if they were rationally undefendable, they would still be widely used.

  • "The main source of pedagogical expertise for a majority of teachers is their experience as students. There's very little over the course of their subsequent careers that has any chance to change that, and little incentive."... I could not agree more with you on this. It is so evident that the system is failing a lot bright people. Thanks for offering your two cents on this :) BTW I love the channel 3B1B!
    – Noob
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 11:29

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