Final exams at Harvard are so 20th-century
Harvard University is moving further away from final exams. And that’s a good thing.
A few years ago, a student asked me why I rarely give final examinations in my classes. I paused a moment, reflecting on my own college years.Skip to next paragraph
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“I never learned much from them,” I told her. The majority of my exams required me to regurgitate, not to think. And when the tests were over, I promptly forgot most of what I had memorized.
I recalled this exchange as I read about the latest controversy at Harvard University, which – because it’s Harvard – has made national headlines. Earlier this year, the university announced that it would no longer expect its courses to conclude with final exminations. In the past, professors were supposed to obtain approval if they did not intend to give a final exam; from now on, though, they will need to notify the university if they do wish to give one.
Conservative critics quickly pounced on the news, decrying Harvard’s new policy as a symbol of everything that ails American schooling. “Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience,” wrote Chester Finn and Micky Muldoon, both Harvard graduates, in a widely circulated article for National Review Online.
But the critics have it exactly backwards. Final examinations reflect an antiquated and largely discredited theory of learning, which equates knowledge with factual recall. By discouraging exams, then, Harvard is hardly forsaking academic rigor. Instead, it’s clearing the way for a more engaging, challenging, and truly educative college experience.
To see why, consider an example from my own field: American history. Imagine a test that instructs students to identify and describe five of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. Then imagine a take-home essay assignment, asking the students to explain what – if anything – our present-day leaders should borrow, apply, or adapt from Roosevelt’s policies.
Most of us grew up with exercises like the first one, so we’re inclined to favor them. They’re factual, after all, requiring students to memorize an objective body of information. By comparison, the essay assignment seems abstract and deeply subjective. It asks for opinions, not facts.
Fact + opinion = real knowledge
Over the past two decades, however, a large body of research in cognitive psychology has challenged this entire dichotomy. To develop real knowledge in a discipline, students must master facts and construct opinions about them. Facts without opinion are irrelevant data points, forgotten as quickly as they are absorbed.