Blog post – Should we ban final exams?

For centuries, exams have played a central role in assessing student competencies. However, as the higher education landscape changes, there has been an increasing divide between educational practitioners about the benefits and drawbacks of exams. 

In the first debate from UQ’s Higher Ed Debate series, we examined this controversy and invited staff and students to present their views on the topic That we should ban final exams. We followed the common debate style of having two teams of three members, with one team supporting (affirmative) and one team opposing (negative) the topic.

Debate recording

Arguments from the 'affirmative' team (Yes, exams should be banned)Arguments from the 'negative' team (No, exams should not be banned)
Cara Rowe (student representative)Prof Lydia Kavanagh
A/Prof Alastair StarkJacqui Lynagh
Owen Venture (student representative)Cormac Moriarty (student representative)

Debate summary

Affirmative team – Arguing in favour of banning final exams

The affirmative team argued that exams under the status quo are not an effective means of assessing student knowledge or employability as they prioritise breadth over depth, test students’ ability to recall facts rather than prepare them for future employment, assess students by their penmanship and ability to write neatly rather than deep knowledge and assess students under time pressure without access to world knowledge (i.e. Google search), which is rarely the case in the real world.

They further argued that exams provide a poor learning experience as they encourage cramming which is an ineffective way of studying, carry an excessively large weight of the final grade which introduces a harmful level of stress and anxiety, lack inclusivity as they unfairly disadvantage those who are neurodivergent or have disabilities and lack accountability in terms of quality of marking and providing feedback. In addition, they argued that proctoring online exams introduces data privacy concerns that students should not have to bear. 

As a strategy to address concerns raised by the use of exams, they suggested the use of low-state, authentic, bite-size assessments that assess content at the end of each week or a short module.

Negative team – Arguing against banning final exams

The negative team responded that most of the points raised by the affirmative team relate to poorly developed exams rather than exams by nature. For example, it is possible to create open book exams that test your ability to authentically solve problems and apply knowledge, use oral exams to test employability factors beyond recalling facts or use a digital assessment platform to avoid issues related to poor handwriting and to increase marking accountability and provide feedback. Additionally, they outlined the importance of testing breadth in relation to recall-based questions. They also argued that even though industry-specific knowledge is widely accessible, as the expert in a domain, you're expected to know the content when you meet with a client rather than having Google open in front of you to search for answers. They highlighted two benefits that exams carry over bite-sized assignments:

  • Final exams can critically assess your ability to apply knowledge from across all parts of the course rather than content related to a specific module.
  • Exams enable students to develop the ability to work under stress under tight timelines, which gives them an employability advantage.

The team further argued that the affirmative team failed to provide any evidence of why alternative assessments to exams are any better. For example, if their argument is that academics are creating poor exams, why would the quality of alternative assessments they make be any better? In terms of anxiety and stress, turning exams into bite-sized assignments means many more overlapping deadlines across courses for a student, which itself is a source of anxiety. Accountability of marking is also a problem with assignments as tutors might be under time pressure to read and provide feedback on a long essay with very little given time. The use of team-based assessments may disadvantage students that are stuck in a bad team or might give an unfair advantage to free-riders. Oral presentations may also introduce stress and are unscalable, plus they take up a lot of students’ contact time. Work-integrated learning may introduce overhead funding for travel and attire and raise fairness concerns as the quality of the experience may vary significantly depending on the placement. 

Finally, they raised the important point of academic workload and viewing academics as a finite resource. Exams are a time-effective way of establishing how well a student has achieved learning outcomes, which have academic integrity embedded into them. While it is possible to replace them, alternatives would generally require significantly more time commitment, which maxed-out academics would find challenging to achieve.

Do you think final exams should be banned?

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Last updated:
8 August 2022