The pressure caused by and the cramming required for final exams have long taken the blame for a slew of college-campus woes, including cheating scandals and Adderall abuse. Now some schools and professors are also questioning the efficacy of finals on a fundamental level, deeming them — at best — insufficient assessments of knowledge and — at worst — impediments to learning.
Even Harvard, rather famously, began phasing out the dreaded end-term tests after a curriculum change in 2009. Other teachers and campuses are following suit. One such educator at the forefront of the movement, William E. Engel, Ph.D., professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South, shares his classroom endgame, and four better ways to achieve it
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Focus on smaller, cumulative projects: “Learning should be cumulative, rather than coming in little bits and pieces that aren’t put together until the end. My students do exercises that they keep applying, transforming, reapplying and literally reconstructing throughout the semester. Exercises are a means to an end, not the end itself. ”
Remove the pressure: “When they’re cramming, they may get surface details down — but they won’t be able to offer the nuances of a well-constructed and interesting argument. Sometimes I give writing exercises during class, introduced as ‘just an assignment for class time today.’ This environment helps them to be able to grasp greater depths of concepts.”
Introduce a different pressure: “I have them work individually and then come to class and do it in a group. Each is asked to speak about something unique they discovered. When they know their peers will look at the individual work they did, it will be more polished. Working in peer groups ensures they’ve tested their ideas.”
The endgame: Ultimately, Engel hopes to teach his students analytical ways to approach texts that they can then incorporate into other areas of learning and expertise. “My larger goal is to prepare them for lifelong learning,” he explains. “I’m trying to develop the spirit of my student, more than a mastery of the material. If we’re teaching to an exam, that changes how we teach.”
It’s all about the shapes
Engel is fond of mind maps. For example, when teaching Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” he gives the students a 24-sided figure, a side for each tale: “I have them draw lines and squiggles in colorful pens to make connections between and among the tales,” he says.
— To learn more about his pedagogy and exercises, visit www.engelwood.com.