Do We Really Need a Final Exam?

Do We Really Need a Final Exam?

In his article in the British Newspaper The Telegraph titled “Intelligence cannot be defined by exams,” Peter Tait argues that, “The problem of measuring intelligence per se is that it is an inadequate guide to human capability, and that many of the ways we use to measure working intelligence are woefully inadequate.”

I would argue that one of these inadequate measures is the final exam.

I listen to teachers in the staff room complain about students who think the final exam will dramatically change their mark.

Yes, it occasionally happens, but more often than not a student’s mark is essentially the same before and after the exam.

Other teachers wonder what to do with a student who performed poorly on the exam, but demonstrated excellent understanding throughout the semester.

And yet, we are still required to give exams at the end of the semester.

Or administrators who, in an effort to help with the end of semester time crunch, encourage writing the report comments before the exams are done because, “you basically know what their mark will be.”

Yes, I basically do. So why am I required to give an exam at the end of the semester?

After teaching a no-grades classroom for a few years I decided this dilemma was untenable.

I spend all semester conferencing; giving feedback and generally promoting learning over marks only to turn around at the end of the course to administer a formal final exam. Following rich conversations about world news, student opinions on indigenous issues in our county, discussions about the relevance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I find myself sitting at my desk, alone in my classroom, deciding if a student’s answer warrants 3 points, or 5.

Surely this is “woefully inadequate.” Surely there is a better way.

At the start of this school year I presented my principal with an option to the traditional exam. Could our English department have students make an end of the year presentation where they discuss their strengths, challenges and next steps using examples from their work throughout the semester? He agreed to let us try.

For this exam reflection we allowed students to organize their presentations however they saw fit. The requirements were that they had to choose three expectations from our four categories (Oral, Reading, Writing, Media) and explain their strengths, challenges and next steps for each expectation. They were required to provide examples from their work to support their explanations.

I was so proud of my students. They really took the time to reflect and show their learning.

Below is an example of one of my students’ strengths for the expectation “Reading for Meaning”. The picture on the left is her first attempt at annotating while the one on the right is one of her later annotations. In her presentation she discussed how she eventually colour coded her annotations (you can see her legend at the top of the page) and how she used the feedback she received to help make adjustments and improvements to subsequent annotations. She went on to talk about how learning to properly annotate has helped her to engage more fully with the text; leading to a deeper understanding of the characters, themes and literary devices than she had previously known.



This students’ self-reflection at the end of the semester was meaningful to her. She was able to look back at her semester and genuinely evaluate her learning.

It was interesting to see how students organized their content. The following grade nine student organized his thoughts into charts supporting his ideas with oral examples of his work from the semester. In his Weaknesses/Challenges section he even reflected on the exam process itself.



We have discovered that one of our challenges with this format is to ensure that students provide both an example of their work and an explanation of how the work demonstrates understanding of the expectation. We believe this will become easier as we curate examples of past reflective presentations. Concrete examples should help students visualize their own presentation.

This issue can be seen from the example below, where the student has given an example of the work he is discussing, but has not specifically addressed the expectation. He is ostensibly discussing the writing strategies he used, but has only said that he is good at them and that he discussed them with others. Unlike the previous student, he didn’t add his examples orally, but had to be prompted for examples.



Our department also found the exam reflections to be useful when talking with students who were unsuccessful in meeting the expectations. One teacher talked with a student who had done very little work all semester, but who said she could meet all the expectations. The teacher replied that she had no doubt the student could meet the expectations, but where was the work from the semester to support her claim? It was a light bulb moment for the student. The student agreed that there was too little evidence of the expectations and that the teacher could not allow her to advance to the next course level. The onus was put on the student, not on the teacher.

If teachers and students routinely had this type of reflection at the end of each course, less time would have to be spent assessing student knowledge at the beginning of the new year. The commencement of the next course could simply start with a look back at the reflection and a setting of new goals. Teachers could easily group students by goals and need.

Even though some students did a better job than others in their reflective presentations, each student did think and reflect on their learning.

I was pleased to hear students admit that sitting beside their friends was maybe not their best choice, and that they would think about that in the future. How much more effective is this reflection coming from the student themselves than in a comment written by the teacher on a report card?

I had many students mention that they were proud of themselves for adding more to classroom conversations, and others who discussed how they had applied their feedback to other courses and would continue to apply their learning to future English courses.

As I reflect on the changes we will make the next time around, whatever our inadequacies, I am at least comforted that we are permitting students to reflect on their own “human capabilities” and not randomly tying a number to their “intelligence”.

What do you think? Would you try this kind of reflection in your classroom?


2 thoughts on “Do We Really Need a Final Exam?

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