In Praise of Final Exams

It’s finals season. Comprehensive review of terms, ideas and people from studied nearly a year ago have been my normal subject matter this past week. On the one hand, finals are an aggravating process – why should one test count so highly? Why not a final project instead of a cumulative test? Pedagogically, however, I am coming to appreciate the role final exams play in completing the course.

It’s been said that “imitation precedes art.” Finals are a place to see students moving from imitating their teacher to the art of compiling truths together to assume a new form. The way I have structured my literature class, students have read eight different texts this year. Now that they’ve read them all, our review permits them to make connections, analytical discoveries, and new insights impossible without the prior work of wading through a dense text. In history, the same students are now able to process the more theoretical aspects and prove them with data.

Our review period has also made gaps evident. As we reviewed the book of Job, one student revealed a lack of understanding about Satan (she had combined the Jewish, Christian, and Mormon teachings about Satan’s origins), while another had a lightbulb moment when she grasped the different between the Jewish Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is One”) and the Christian Trinity as we wrestled with plural pronouns in Genesis 1.

All year long, I have been asking students to imitate my historical and literary habits (reading, thinking, writing, analyzing), and now the period of review before the final is letting them all synthesize the imitation into distinctive forms unique to each student. Far from being just an administrative/testing burden (like standardized testing), the cumulative final creates space for the classical student to assemble their grammatical and logical knowledge about a topic and put it into a unique rhetorical form.

So to all my friends and fellow teacher staring at the stack of essays, tests, and circled answers, press on! The tunnel is ending, and a more educated student awaits on the other side of finals!

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