Why professors should replace cumulative exams

Why professors should replace cumulative exams

Finals week is “finally” here, and as a result, students of all class standings and majors are finding themselves thoroughly stressed out, indulging in large amounts of coffee and simply trying to make it through the next week without going completely insane.

One of the most intimidating things about finals week is the “make-it-or-break-it” nature of the assignments. Generally, final exams account for the highest percentage of points for the entire semester for any given class, so performing poorly on just this one test can really hurt a student’s overall grade. 

Unfortunately, not everyone excels under the pressure of test-taking. In fact, there are plenty of students who suffer from test-taking anxiety and have difficulty getting good grades on exams no matter how much they study. Because of this, it doesn’t seem entirely reasonable that students’ GPAs rely so heavily on this end-of-the-year cram session. 

Students can do well all semester long and work their tails off to get that “A” only to watch it all disappear when they turn in their Scantron forms and get their results on Blackboard. During finals week, students also tend to have several final exams “stacked” on top of each other in a single day, which makes it even more challenging for students to spread out their studying and prepare for each test.

Preparing for multiple cumulative exams, especially when they stack up on the same day, leads to all-night cram sessions, erratic sleep and eating schedules, and physical and mental exhaustion. Students’ retention of final-exam information is low, too, meaning they are more likely to forget everything they memorized right after turning in their test. 

For these reasons, professors should seriously consider whether assigning a final cumulative exam is worth it for their class. There are other ways to measure how much information from the course students have retained that don’t involve forcing them to mindlessly memorize information but instead make them synthesize it creatively in a way that more firmly cements the concepts in their brains.

Rather than scheduling end-of-the-semester tests, professors should consider assigning final projects or papers instead. Not only are these assignments usually easier for students to balance, but they also require a more comprehensive, well-rounded, profound understanding of the material, whereas cumulative exams often just encourage rote learning. Final projects and papers allow students to think more critically, creatively and analytically, and put what they’ve learned from a course more into practice. 

In addition, having to produce a significant piece of work in the form of a paper, PowerPoint presentation or other project is much more representative of the types of work students will encounter in their careers after graduation. Solid papers can also be used as writing samples in certain job or grad-school applications.

Luckily, a significant portion of professors seem to be phasing out cumulative exams in favor of tests that aren’t cumulative, papers, presentations and group projects. Cumulative exams are slowly starting to vanish from many professors’ syllabi, and with good reason.