Why I still give comprehensive essay finals

Science, the apocalypse, and teaching / Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

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Think back to your college days. Remember studying all week to prepare for your final exam? This exam encompassed everything you learned over an entire semester! If you failed the final you failed the class. Remember? I hated this when I was a student but I remember this material to this day! I actually LEARNED the material instead of memorizing it long enough to pass one multiple choice test. I feel this is a lost art now in the higher education world….. But not in my class. I still give comprehensive written finals. I’ll tell you why:


1. Life is not multiple choice

I teach a plethora of pre-professionals. Do you want a nurse or doctor that doesn’t know where your spleen is? I think not. You want your medical staff to be educated and knowledgeable in ALL THINGS BODY RELATED! If you’re a student reading this, a crying mother isn’t going to come up to you and say, “What’s wrong with my baby? A, B, or C?” They’re going to look to you for answers and comfort. They see you as the highest authority of knowledge. Don’t disappoint them.

I experienced this once. When I played roller derby I fell and tweaked my sacrum. I went in for an X-ray, without disclosing my education (Paleoanthropologist, I know all thing bones) I asked to see my X-ray. She showed the x-ray and said, “Oh this is your lumbar vertebrae.” She was pointing at my sacrum and tailbone. (Sorry sometimes I get excited and start spitting out anatomical terms.) I was so disappointed. I thought to myself, “Oh you poor girl, you didn’t pay attention in anatomy class.”



2. Learn the material, don’t memorize it

Comprehensive tests determine who learned the material and who memorized enough the day before to take the exam. If you’re paying all this money to go to college you might as well come out knowing a little bit about everything. My Freshman Seminar course has a little bit of comprehension on every exam leading up to their final. This course is called Apocalypse Survival, if they can’t survive or know how to survive at the end of this course I don’t think they deserve to pass. I know I sound like a hard ass but, I love this group of kids and have complete faith in them. If the entire class failed every exam leading up to the final then that means I DIDN’T DO MY JOB of teaching them. Not all professors care and I know this, it’s sad. I want my students to learn and succeed – they know this so I hope they try harder to learn the material.

Moral of the story, if you learn the information you will be able to apply it and truly understand it. If you memorize it you will forget it the next day. No real learning took place.



3. Written exams allow students to explain concepts in their own words

If a student can explain a theory or concept in their own words, guess what? They actually LEARNED the material! They synthesized it and now they can apply it in life. Sometimes a student explains an answer that makes you go, “Wow they’re right!” I really like seeing different perspectives. The world isn’t black and white. When we close our minds to concepts WE stop learning. Your students are future colleagues in your field, there’s no reason to believe you can’t learn anything from them because they don’t hold a magical PhD. Knowledge comes in all forms. Stop inhibiting learning because your student’s ideology doesn’t match yours. If they can explain the concept in their own words there’s no reason to tell them they’re wrong because they didn’t regurgitate your wording.



4. You don’t need to teach the test

You don’t have to teach to the test because the test covers EVERYTHING you did all semester! I know this one is more challenging. Classes are now required to have a pass-rate for tenure and promotion, which in theory was there to help good professors excel and bad ones leave. This now involves the professors teaching exactly what’s on the exams to get all of the students to pass even if they didn’t learn anything. It’s disheartening. If you give a comprehensive final, not everyone will pass. You have to be prepared for that and probably be part of an institution that doesn’t twist your arm to pass the undeserving. Professors can go at their own speed, making sure learning occurs, and applying the big-picture of the entire class. This is so much better than the multiple choice Scantrons. It’s more personal and allows the students to learn form the master in the field.



I know the list above is extremely challenging to do in a class of 50, 100, or 500 students. Sometimes the Scantron or computer exam is the only way you are able to get exams graded and assess the student body. The comprehensive written final exam is not for everyone. Some people don’t want to read 4-5 pages per student at the end of the semester. I just feel I get a better read on my students and using this method I can tell if they actually learned something.

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2 Replies to “Why I still give comprehensive essay finals”

  1. Absolutely agree!!! There is the same problem in Russia. I think you should pursue the goal to establish your own college with right teachers. Students must have the opportunity to estimate the teachers about their professional skills.

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