Paul L. Caron

Monday, October 4, 2010

Only 23% of Courses at Harvard Have a Final Exam

Boston Globe: The Test Has Been Canceled: Final Exams Are Quietly Vanishing From College:

Across the country, there is growing evidence that final exams — once considered so important that universities named a week after them — are being abandoned or diminished, replaced by take-home tests, papers, projects, or group presentations. Anecdotally, longtime professors say they have been noticing the trend for years. And now, thanks to a recent discussion at Harvard University, there are statistics that make clear just how much the landscape has changed. ...

In the spring term at Harvard last year, only 259 of the 1,137 undergraduate courses had a scheduled final exam, the lowest number since 2002, according to Jay M. Harris, the dean of undergraduate education. ...  [T]he low rate of actual scheduled finals at Harvard last spring — just 23% — was considered significant enough to prompt one striking change. For years, final exams in Cambridge were considered a given, and the bureaucratic rules reflected that reality. Courses were simply assumed to include a seated, three-hour final exam; any professor who wished to opt out had to request permission. But that wasn’t happening, Harris said, forcing the registrar’s office to track down professors each semester, only to learn that, no, they were not planning on a final exam. So starting this fall, the onus has been flipped: The university will assume there will be no finals in courses. Any professor who actually wants to hold one will need to say so.

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Harvard has been a joke for years. Real world example....Public Service director of Columbus Ohio circa 1978. High School diploma, no degree. Took the 12 month MPA course, graduated. Between legacy enrollment, affirmative action, diversity, etc etc, standards just don't exist anymore.And no one cares......

Posted by: jakooo | Oct 5, 2010 2:20:40 PM

polisciteacher :
Tell us which university you teach at - you deserve to be teaching our kids.
Demand a raise immediately.

Posted by: John | Oct 5, 2010 1:14:25 PM

It is much more difficult to cheat on a seated, no technology allowed anywhere nearby, final exam, than it is to cheat on a paper (or even a project). Students can buy papers, or permit or pay someone else to write their papers for them, or figure out how to beat! Cheating on paper writing is rampant from middle school on up. Unless teachers and professors are requiring handwritten drafts and sources submitted for review in advance, you can bet that many, if not most, students are cheating to one degree or another when the assignment is a paper--especially a research paper. And please, could we stop with the "reflection" papers? Talk about teaching students to believe it's all about them.

Posted by: polisciteacher | Oct 5, 2010 4:49:50 AM

Despite the fact that IHMO , Bush having a Harvard MBA hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement , when was this about Bush?
Get over it guys - your Ivy Leaguer won.
Nobody is smarter than Kerry , Big Al and the big O - I mean we have perfect , settled climate science , a roaring economy and appropriate taxes on yachts in New England.....oh wait......
Be still your progressive , egalitarian , non elitist hearts.

Posted by: John | Oct 4, 2010 8:41:15 PM

"From my personal experience (not at Harvard, but at an elite college)"
Is the definition of elite:
"Too posh to push(a pen)"

Posted by: John | Oct 4, 2010 8:35:31 PM

"But apparently since I haven't had a three-hour final in an upper-level history class, I'm not learning anything and my degree is worthless"

Posted by: John | Oct 4, 2010 8:33:21 PM

This is a ridiculous factoid. I have had three children attend college, one at Harvard. The rigor of his Harvard education was much more difficult than what the other two encountered at a large Midwestern university. He and others in his class routinely were expected to write numerous lengthy papers, read hundreds of pages each week, and actually discuss the subject matter with the professor. If he did not have a final exam, he had a major paper to write. I have envied his education compared to mine. He actually learned to think and to assess information with a critical mind. He was not expected to memorize useless lists, and then pick an answer labeled A through D. He wrote papers that were then graded as to his depth of knowledge and strength of argument.
There are coasters and loafers at every school. You will find a lower percentage at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton than at most large public universities. Getting an A at the public school I attended was relatively easy, because the large majority of students were just wasting their time and money. You didn't need grade inflation, because of the student effort deflation.

Posted by: jay | Oct 4, 2010 8:11:54 PM

That's interesting, in my experience at state schools Final Exams are a given, except at the highest level such as special projects and seminars. But then we couldn't drop classes after 6 weeks, and if we retook a course, it didn't count towards our gpa.

Posted by: Roy | Oct 4, 2010 6:09:33 PM

Surely anyone who goes to Harvard deserves an A.
And on graduation, a highly paid top leadership position in government or what's left of industry.

Just ask them.

Posted by: RSweeney | Oct 4, 2010 5:57:28 PM

I'm not sure why this is a problem. It's not as though these classes have no evaluation method (although I will say that group projects as "finals" are totally bogus). My history profs are concerned about my ability to write about history well, not my ability to regurgitate random facts onto a paper. A final exam doesn't really lend itself to judging my ability to write about history well. But apparently since I haven't had a three-hour final in an upper-level history class, I'm not learning anything and my degree is worthless. Ookay.

Posted by: W&L '11 | Oct 4, 2010 5:55:14 PM

This doesn't strike me as that odd. Think about the types of classes that are suited for final exams instead of final papers or final projects. Upper level classes, for instance, don't seem to benefit from exams as opposes to papers. The type of material is usually too deep to be tested effectively with a series of questions, and if you are just going to have an essay test, it's way better to give the student more time and allow him to produce something worthwhile.

Even for 100 and 200 level courses, there are a number that don't seem to be conducive to sit-down tests. My intro philosophy classes, for instance, had no sit down final, but instead had a number of papers graded over the course of the class, or a final paper.

It's possible, of course, that professors are just being lazy. But none of the classes where I had no final had less material to grade because of it. If anything, they had to read more because I was writing final papers. And since it makes little sense to judge an entire semester's worth of knowledge in 3 hours, the reduction in finals is probably a net positive.

Posted by: Mac | Oct 4, 2010 5:52:42 PM

Have taught at the community college and university level I saw this phenomenon first hand. In my experience it was mostly an outgrowth of the student-as-consumer mind set college have developed. Students did not want to take final exams and would shop around for the courses that did not require them. Professors anxious to keep enrollments up dropped their exams. Department heads, also anxious to keep numbers up, went along with the idea. Administrators didn't seem to care about the quality of the education the students were receiving just the quantity. If only 23% of Harvard courses offer final exams then I would agree that degree from Harvard might not be worth the paper they print it on.

Posted by: BunnyMomRocks | Oct 4, 2010 5:40:30 PM

For the price my students' parents pay they deserve an assessment of Little Alex(is)'s performance.

Posted by: The Cranky Professor | Oct 4, 2010 5:38:35 PM

Not surprising in the least. I had a couple of really outstanding Harvard educated employees who did a great job for our company, but the other dozen from Harvard just wanted to coast. While meeting the requirements of the job, the coasters definitely didn't go above and beyond. They figured they worked hard enough in high school to get in to Harvard and because of this, everyone owed them from that point on. As one of my directors told me, these schools are "IQ filters" -- others who had "paid their way through school" (i.e. highly rated state universities) tended to be more loyal, harder working and got better results for the company -- and they didn't go to Harvard (or other Ivy League school).

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | Oct 4, 2010 5:38:09 PM

Whoah, whoah. 23% of Harvard classes have *scheduled* final exams. That's far, far different from saying 23% have final exams. From my personal experience (not at Harvard, but at an elite college) the move is away from the "come in for three hours for a quick and dirty test" towards the "I'll give you a 18 hour long monstrosity and you can work on it at home" style final exam.

The "final paper instead of exam," contrary to what one might suppose, was even more sadistic.

Posted by: Sayyid412 | Oct 4, 2010 5:19:15 PM

Every West Point class has a term end exam and they are no joke.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 4, 2010 4:59:50 PM

No surprise. If students are seriously questioned they might expose how little they really know. I recently took a course where the instructor assigned and collected homework. Then he gave a list of about 15 review exercises, all from the homework. The exam would be 6 or 7 questions from the review list. All of the questions were exactly from the review list. Way to be confident about what has been taught and learned. Tolerating student cheating is one way to raise grades.

Posted by: MilwaukeeD | Oct 4, 2010 4:44:12 PM

What you have to know about the Harvard MBA School is that they use (at least they used to in the early 90's) case study method instead of exams. You read a case where a story is told about a business or situation with the pertinent facts are presented and then you must make the correct business decision. Make the wrong decision and it's obvious that you've incorrectly drawn the facts or errored in your analysis.

Posted by: BeachBumBill | Oct 4, 2010 4:42:57 PM

I'm pretty sure when Bush got his MBA [how do you know he "eked" it out?], I'm reasonably sure there were still some grading standards. It's up to *you* to prove otherwise.
OTOH, Global Climate Scientist Al Gore evidently flunked out of divinity school, whether it had easier standards or not.

Envy is an ugly, ugly thing, 'bestborexautomation'.

Posted by: jorgxmckie | Oct 4, 2010 4:21:50 PM

Since Bush had a higher GPA at Yale than did Democratic presidential candidate and "intellectual" John Kerry, it certainly makes critics of Bush and supporters of the Democrats look even more "cosmetic." Also, Bush is the only President to have earned an MBA. (Who knew that the left was still suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome?)

Hey, why won't Obama release his college transcripts?

In other news, Al Gore Got a D in Natural Sciences at Harvard.

Don't you just love academic intellectuals who refuse to acknowledge facts and still use any silly excuse to attack Bush?

Posted by: Woody | Oct 4, 2010 4:05:39 PM

As a current (older) college student I can say I am damn glad that final exams are being phased out. All final exams do is make you remember a list of things and regurgitate them. In my current field of study (dietetics & nutrition) our papers and projects require practical application of the information we learn in the classroom. Using this method, I feel like I will be far more prepared to actually work when I get my degree, as opposed to simply memorizing things in order to obtain a grade on an exam.

Not to mention that with a final exam, some of the material you are tested on is info you have already been tested on once (or more than once if you have multiple tests and a mid-term) while other information you've never been tested on before. Either your time is wasted by being tested multiple times on some information or some of the info is being given short shrift. Either way it's an unbalanced way of retaining data. IMHO, of course.

Posted by: malren | Oct 4, 2010 3:56:43 PM

Since bush eked out a MASTERS
degree from Harvard (with his
signature cowboy boots
prominently propped upon a
contiguous desktop),
it would appear that
even the 23% solution is
very very dilute and
indubitably merely cosmetic.

Posted by: best forexautomation | Oct 4, 2010 1:52:40 PM

Do they just have to show up to get their degree then?
This grade creep think drives me nuts.It cheapens all of our qualifications.
When my wife and I moved here we struggled to get residencies and in her case a law clerkship as our final averages in our degrees was around 70 percent - we both studied in South Africa.
By American standards this is an appalling GPA as EVERYONE has a "summa cum laude degree".
In my graduating class of 200 - 1 person got a "magna" cum laude degree and NOBODY attained a 90 percent average and got a "Summa"
In my wife's class there was nobody out of 150 LLB graduates who managed either!
Maybe Africans are just dumb?
When colleagues proudly boast of their Ivy League credentials I shall ask them if they actually wrote exams in future!

Posted by: John | Oct 4, 2010 1:08:51 PM

Giving no final exams sure takes the pressure off of grading and posting grades.

Posted by: Woody | Oct 4, 2010 12:41:39 PM

It's fascinating to watch elite colleges spend down their hard-earned reputations. It reminds me of how state and federal governments are squandering their credit ratings.

Posted by: AMTbuff | Oct 4, 2010 11:22:57 AM