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Rethinking Finals

This article is part of a larger series exploring grades at Haverford. Earlier articles in the series can be found here.

Non doctior, sed meliore doctrina imbutus

“Not more learned, but imbued with better learning”

– Haverford College motto

What do our final exams and essays measure? What are they supposed to signify, and to whom? How do they fit into the mission of the college?

Finals at Haverford are commonly thought to be representative of the most important work that a student produces for a class. This can mean that a final may be graded on the basis of:

  1. The progress in the quality of the student’s academic work over the course of the semester
  2. The objective quality of the student’s final work (paper/exam/project- regardless of progress)
  3. The comparative quality of the student’s final work (relative to the class)

Whether the final project is an essay, a creative project, or an exam, our current system of finals is fundamentally flawed in regards to how it fits into Haverford’s role as an educational institution.

The flaws in our finals stem from a lack of mutual understanding between the student and the professor as to how a final is evaluated. What does it mean to receive a 3.7 on a final in one class (or in one discipline) as compared to a 3.7 on a final in another class? Are finals evaluated differently than papers and exams from the beginning of the semester?

These questions are important, but many students don’t make it this far: in a 2015 survey conducted by the Clerk, over a quarter of respondents rarely or never receive feedback on final exams or papers. Some juniors at the college have never “received feedback on a final paper or a final exam grade.” If final evaluations are meant to represent any of the above measures of a student’s learning, then a lack of feedback neglects a large– if not the largest– opportunity to learn from a professor’s feedback.

finals image 2

One student responded that they had many classes without any feedback on “some or most assignments- especially final exams and papers.” The student felt that the “whole point of assignments is supposed to be to learn,” which “you can’t do if you don’t receive feedback on your work.” Without constructive feedback, the student argued, grades themselves do almost nothing to advance the college’s educational goals.

With this in mind, we might ask why finals are weighted more than the cumulative assignments of a semester. Why shift the emphasis from learning and work over the course of the semester to the output of a single, sleep-deprived week of a flurry of essays and exams?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting a complete abolition of finals. There is value in an opportunity to present the cumulative learning of a semester. This opportunity, however, should itself be a moment of learning— and without feedback beyond a numerical value (a grade), this opportunity is forgone.

Until Haverford can establish professorial transparency as to how a final is evaluated and feedback is given, it would make sense to implement some temporary solutions. First and foremost, professors can- and should- state explicitly on their syllabi on what grounds their class’s final paper/exam, and, accordingly, a final grade for the entire course are predicated. This is not to say that every professor ought to create a rubric for every final assessment, but rather to suggest that students might benefit from more transparency in terms of understanding the professor’s ultimate purpose and goal of the final assessment.

In the current system, a student is welcome to ask for feedback before, during, and after the process of finals. That said, if our “default” response to finals is to not provide feedback, then our “default” response is to emphasize the grade on the final– and to abandon the ideal that final exams and papers are somehow opportunities for students to learn. Additionally, some students might be concerned with approaching their professors to ask for feedback, as this might be construed as an attempt to change a grade. If professors were to create an opt-in/opt-out system for feedback on a student’s final exams, it would give students who want feedback the option to receive it– while not unnecessarily burdening a faculty member who wouldn’t want to spend time writing feedback for a student who isn’t going to look at it. For example, students could mark a “feedback/no feedback” box at the beginning of an exam that indicates their preference to receive a few sentences of feedback or a returned graded exam the next semester.  It is crucial to note that some surveyed students reported never receiving a grade on their final exam.

A second possible solution might be to decrease the percentage that a non-cumulative final assessment counts towards a final grade. By weighting a non-cumulative final exam or essay the same as we might for an exam during the semester itself, we are not implicitly diminishing the importance of a semester’s worth of work and studying.

There are examples in which it would make sense to weight a final exam greater than a midterm. For instance, if a final assessment is cumulative, and a student performs more strongly where that student has previously done poorly, then it would make sense- per the professor’s discretion- to weight the cumulative final exam more than the midterm.

Finally, finals could be reconstructed in some classes to be less of an all-out push at the end of the semester and more of an ongoing project with continuous feedback throughout the semester– so that these “final” projects inherently take into account a student’s learning and growth over the semester. In the humanities or social sciences, this might manifest itself in the form of a longer, multi-part research essay that is continually edited and refined over the course of the semester. In certain, smaller ways, this example recalls the Senior Thesis in its form and function.

This option isn’t limited to the humanities: in some ways, despite some criticisms of the Superlab in practice, the theoretical framework of the lab is based on building a background in fundamental knowledge, the more general presentation of this information, and a written (more general) research proposal that gets worked into a scientific paper. With integrated drafting and critiquing periods throughout the semester, Superlab refrains from a formal final and instead emphasizes the learning as the essential part of the final product. Some classes at Haverford take advantage of this project-based model, but this model is typically reserved for upper-level 300 courses– and even these classes often don’t provide feedback on the final product.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education in March, Corinne Ruff addressed the drawbacks and benefits of formal grades for college students and professors. Ultimately, our final assessment system of grades exists in a larger structural fabric of higher education across the world. Grades are an important part of professorial and student evaluations and a theoretical means of standardization across students. That said, at Haverford, we send a message by not providing feedback beyond a final grade for the course as a whole. This message is dissonant from the pedagogical purpose of Haverford, which emphasizes its close professor-student relationships and places a priority on learning, above all. If we– professors and students alike– are cognizant of Haverford’s motto, “Not more learned, but imbued with better learning,” perhaps we might place a greater priority on learning from our final travails, rather than willfully forgetting about them, semester after semester.

If you would like to write a response to this article, have questions or concerns, or would like to contribute to this series please contact the author Ben Horwitz at or the Editor-in-Chief Hannah Cregan Zigler at

One Comment

  1. Aethelbert March 16, 2016

    The problems raised in this article are insubstantial. Each of the issues raised above can be resolved through communicating with the faculty. The faculty are quite amiable. Indeed, during the first meetings of many courses students do ask exactly these questions.

    Most importantly, the article does not acknowledge that we can ask faculty to show us our final exams after the semester ends. I have done this before and know many others who do. Perhaps you are secretly acknowledging this possibility in your statement, “willfully forgetting about [our final travails].” But that seems like more of an indictment of students who do not seek additional feedback, rather than faculty who might refuse to give it…

    This article gives an unrealistic picture of what assessments are like at Haverford. Evaluations are vastly more transparent than this makes it seem. Indeed, there is not a single example above of a flawed final.

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