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High-pressure situations: What do finals really measure?

By Adrianne Glenn / Columnist

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Feel the cold in the air? The coffee pumping through your veins and that maddening pressure on your temples? Those are the telltale signs that finals week is upon you.

Year after year, students meet finals week with crazy amounts of stress and emotional chaos, but to what gain?

Final exams are meant to gauge a student’s knowledge and show what the student has retained from the course — not to measure how well they do in high-pressure situations. Simply put, making cumulative finals worth a large percentage of a student’s grade is inconsistent with the actual objectives of the test.

In light of this realization, some professors assign projects or papers, which are a more outside-the-classroom assessment, in place of the traditional test final. This benefits students, as high-pressure exams raise the possibility of choking. This often causes students who fully understand the material to do poorly — not to mention all the unnecessary and undeserved stress they experience as a result of this possibility. 

The reason people that choke or underperform on final exams — regardless of their preparation levels — is that they get too caught up in irrelevant worries about the situation. Students in these situations will often consider everything that could go wrong, the likelihood of failing, the ramifications of failing or a number of other stressors, instead of focusing on the material itself.

When students concentrate on these anxieties, rather than on the test, they misuse a considerable percentage of the working memory capacity that it takes to answer the questions adequately. 

Exams then become basic measures of how much a student relies on working memory.

Additionally, students with higher working memory capacities use more complex strategies in problem-solving. The pressure of the situation most significantly affects those who would ordinarily score higher on the test because of their high working memory capacity. 

Therefore, these tests are not only unable to provide a clear view of a student’s mental ability, but they also hurt those who do not work well in a formal test environment. 

On the other hand, project-based finals allow students to work outside of class in a lower-pressure situation, use all of their working memory capacities and focus entirely on applying the information they learned in some way.

The application aspect of outside-the-classroom assessments shows another pitfall of traditional exams. That is, writing papers or doing a research project of some sort allows a person to go more in depth and truly apply the information they know. Conversely, traditional exams prevent students from correctly applying the information even in the case of essay-based exams because of time limits.

Taking time to think about the material and shape it to form an essay or any type of more complex project demonstrates a more complete and dynamic understanding of a subject than simply taking a 50-question multiple-choice test in the course of about an hour.

There are educational benefits that accompany strictly project-based exams as well. Hands-on and learn-by-doing assessments are not only better reflections of what students know, but they also act as a way for students to gain a variety of skills and develop a deeper understanding of the material. 

Studies by the U.S. Department of Labor have shown that project-based learning helps students expand their critical thinking abilities, reasoning skills and overall creativity. 

“One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. It’s an in-depth investigation of a real-world topic,” education researcher Sylvia Chard said.

Project-based learning also helps students with social skills, visualization and decision-making. This type of assessment allows professors to evaluate students in a way that forces them to learn more, which is not something that can be done using traditional exams.

Traditional exams also lack value because they do not accurately reflect the type of scenario most students are likely to use information in the future.

Students will not have to separate themselves from their resources and spout off everything they know about photosynthesis.

Students may, however, eventually have to use this information in an applicational sense as they work towards a bigger goal, which is exactly what project-based learning replicates. 

Clearly, education should not be simply a test of retention. Education is a more encompassing representation of individual growth that no time-condensed exam can accurately reflect — which is why our traditional, stress-inducing notion of finals must change.

Write to Adrianne at adg79@pitt.edu

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High-pressure situations: What do finals really measure?