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Final exams at Harvard are so 20th-century

Harvard University is moving further away from final exams. And that’s a good thing.

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And opinion without fact is humbug, which you can hear on any talk radio show – or at your local coffee shop.

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So facts do matter. But students must learn how to make them matter: that is, how to select, organize, and present facts on behalf of a point of view. The best opinions are the ones that draw clearly upon reputable facts; the worst opinions are the ones that don’t. And education should teach us the difference.

Can final examinations do that? Not in their typical format. When I do give finals, I distribute essay questions a week or two beforehand. That way, students can do the real work of learning – synthesis, analysis, and evaluation – as they prepare.

Here some critics will surely accuse me – like Harvard – of going easy on the students. Giving out the questions before the test? Why not just give them the answers, while you’re at it?

Because the answers are theirs, not mine. And a good answer requires much more forethought than the usual exam schedule allows. Maybe you could frame a coherent, logical, and factually accurate critique of the New Deal in an hour. I couldn’t.

But I could spit out what my professor – or my textbook – has told me.

And that’s what most exams ask us to do. Here are five New Deal reforms; here are four causes of the Civil War. Better memorize them, because they’re going to be on the test.

In the guise of toughness and “accountability,” then, final exams actually let all of us – students, faculty, and administrators – off the hook. And if we really cared about learning, we’d devise more creative ways to expand and measure it.

The bigger problem at college

Alas, most college instruction appears to be moving in the opposite direction. In their forthcoming book, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show that students’ ability to reason, analyze and articulate is directly related to the amount of reading and writing that they are assigned: the more we require, the more they learn.

But in their sample of over 2,300 college students, Arum and Roksa found that half of them had not taken a single class during the prior semester that required even a modest 20 pages of total writing! That’s not a misprint; it’s a tragedy. And we should all be ashamed about it.

So by all means, let’s demand more of our students – and of our professors – at American universities. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that final examinations will solve the problem. To the contrary, our biggest test right now is to move beyond tests. Let’s hope we can pass it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”