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Akst: Or ‘E,’ none of the above

Published: Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

If you’re reading this, you survived the periodic invasion of zombies. You still have Friday the 13th to get through, but that’s another story.

Not cinematic, flesh-eating zombies. I’m talking about cranky, sleep deprived, malnourished, caffeine overdosed Northern Illinois University students who roamed the streets between final exams this week, searching for knowledge and Red Bull.

I’d like to write that they’re recuperating now, and some are, but the burdensome truth is that once finals are over, most pivot to work as many hours and jobs as they can to cope with the expense of a college education and the crushing debt it creates.

In light of this sobering reality, why do schools (high schools and colleges) still give finals?

The legitimacy of a high-stakes test to measure 16 weeks of instruction is questionable. I would argue that the legitimacy of about 95 percent of tests is questionable.

Ray Salazar, who teaches English in the Chicago Public Schools and writes a wonderful blog called “The White Rhino,” sums it up nicely.

“In the 21st century, we’re supposed to give students real-world experiences inside the classroom,” he writes. “I cannot think of any profession that requires people to take lengthy multiple-choice, short answer, and essay exams for long periods of time.”

The payoff is also questionable. It’s easy to blow a good grade with a bad final, but only a small percentage of students raise their grade with a final.

That’s why many college teachers are quietly dropping finals if they are able. However, finals aren’t becoming extinct anytime soon, even if they should.

Consider:

•  If the final represents a significant portion of the total grade, one test, especially if it’s flawed or if the student had a bad day, is an unfair, overly stressful way to determine how much a student learned.

• If the final represents a minor portion of the total grade, it’s probably not worth the hassle and stress.

• Either way, there’s significant doubt that the ability to test well really correlates to deep understanding of subject matter.

I know all this, yet I gave finals in three of my five classes this semester. Why?

1. Crazy as it sounds, some students like them. There are students who look forward to and excel in testing situations.

2. Like many classes, mine are a blend of practical and theoretical knowledge. There are several opportunities for “real world” experiences, but I need some way of determining if they know critical terms and concepts with a minimum of extra work for me. Do would-be reporters understand what constitutes libel? Do would-be PR practitioners understand target audiences?

3. I want their grade to be a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis of their work. Though I have been grading writing and design assignments for a long time, this type of grading is highly subjective. I worry about subjectivity.

4. Students need to be able to follow basic directions. In college, for example, final exams often are scheduled at different times and days than the regular class. No one knows why.

For example, one of my classes this semester met from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The final was 10 to 11:50 a.m. Tuesday (same day, same room, different time). This time anomaly was noted on the course syllabus, is easily found on NIU’s website, and students had verbal reminders last week.

At 10:57 a.m. Tuesday, a student showed up evidently thinking he was 3 minutes early. Most had already finished the test.

Me: “You realize this final started at 10 a.m.?”

Student: “Oh, the test started at 10 a.m.?”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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