By Ashwin Trehan
After each college semester or high school year ends, students across the country engage in the age-old tradition of cramming for final exams. These exams, which usually last between two and three hours, are designed to test students’ ability to absorb material from the entire course.
With college classes lasting an average of 15 weeks and high school classes lasting an average of 40 weeks, students have a lot of material to study, which causes their stress levels to peak. Final exam stress can affect students’ test performance and overall health. During the pandemic, many schools scaled back their final exams in favor of final projects, theses and final portfolios due to concerns about test security and student health.
However, as the country emerges from the pandemic, many institutions are returning to traditional final exams, which in turn brings back the notorious stress associated with them. As more and more alternatives to exams have proven capable of testing students’ knowledge, final exams must be replaced to preserve student well-being.
While the traditional one-time final exam can cause stress, anxiety, and depression among students, it is important to note that the premise of final exams has merit.
In a paper published in the National Library of Medicine, cumulative final exams have been shown to increase long-term content retention. In addition, cumulative exams take advantage of the spacing effect: if you have studied something, studying the same content after a time gap can lead to higher levels of learning.
When students relearn forgotten material or brush up on topics they don’t fully understand in preparation for a final exam, they unwittingly take advantage of the spacing effect.
The problem with traditional final exams is not the material they test, but that the format puts too much pressure on students, causing stress and anxiety in students that can lead to long-term health problems.
According to research conducted by Pew Social Trends, the stress of final and midterm exams is the leading cause of stress for nearly a third of American college students. Both high school students and college students are in developmental phases; they develop their personalities, form new relationships and gain a new sense of independence.
Burdening students with the stress of final exams places these passing students in vulnerable positions.
Stress can lead to or exacerbate conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Test-taking anxiety is so prevalent in society that there is a condition called test anxiety that deals with anxiety specifically about test-taking. Many sources of stress in a person’s life are uncontrollable, such as the stress of losing a loved one, being laid off from a job, and dealing with conflict.
If final exams are harmful to students’ mental health and can be reworked, they should be removed to ensure student well-being.
Ensuring that students understand the content they have learned is essential to providing a well-rounded education, but final exams are not the only method of achieving this.
Due to restrictions on sit-in exams during the pandemic, many colleges and high schools have had to get creative during the pandemic.
For example, Stephanie Bailey, an assistant professor at Chapman University, swapped her traditional final exam format for a community service project involving academics. Some other popular options include mini-presentations on various topics, poster symposia, and open-book exams.
One-off final exams simply put too much pressure on students to succeed to be considered a viable option in today’s world.
With so many potential alternatives that require students to both interact with a variety of content and analyze the material learned throughout the class, final exam work can be completed in a less stressful way.
While it’s hard to break from tradition, it will really show students that their schools value their mental well-being.
Ashwin Trehan is a student at Metuchen High School. He has worked with the Hamilton Laboratory at Rutgers University for over a year, assisting with research on adolescent mental health and suicide. He also serves as co-president of The Hamilton Lab’s Youth Advisory Board.
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