By Ashvin Trehan
After the end of every college semester or high school year, students nationwide engage in the age-old tradition of cramming for final exams. These exams, which usually last between two to three hours, are intended to test students on their ability to absorb material from an entire course.
With college classes running an average of 15 weeks and high school classes running an average of 40 weeks, students have a lot of material to study causing their stress levels to peak. Final exam stress can affect students’ performance on tests and their overall health. During the pandemic, many schools focused their final exams in favor of final projects, final papers and final portfolios due to concerns over test security and student wellness.
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 themselves capable of testing students’ knowledge, final exams need to be replaced to preserve the well-being of students.
While the traditional single-sitting final exam can cause stress, anxiety and depression among students, it is important to note that the premise of final exams does hold merit.
In a published in the National Library of Medicine, cumulative final examinations have been proven to increase long-term content retention rates. In addition, cumulative examinations take advantage of the spacing effect: if you have studied something, studying the same content after a gap of time can produce higher levels of learning.
When students relearn forgotten material or brush up on topics they don’t completely understand in preparation for a final exam, they inadvertently take advantage of the spacing effect.
The problem with traditional final exams is not the material that they are testing, it is that the format places exorbitant pressure on students causing stress and anxiety in students which could lead to long-term health problems.
According to research performed by Pew Social Trends, final and midterm exam stress is the leading cause of stress for nearly one-third of US students. Both high school and college students are in developmental phases; they’re developing their personalities, creating new relationships, and gaining a new sense of independence.
Burdening students with the stress associated with final exams places these transitioning students in positions of vulnerability.
Stress can lead to or intensify conditions such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Anxiety from taking tests is so prevalent in society that a condition exists called stress test that deals with anxiety specifically in regards to taking tests. Many sources of stress in one’s life are uncontrollable like the stress associated with dealing with the loss of a loved one, being let go from a job, and dealing with conflict.
If final exams are harmful to students’ mental health and can be reworked, they should be abolished to ensure the well-being of students.
Ensuring that students understand the content they have learned is essential in ensuring a comprehensive education, however, final exams are not the only method of achieving this.
Due to restrictions on in-person exams during the pandemic, many colleges and high schools had to get creative during the pandemic.
For example, Stephanie Bailey, an assistant professor at Chapman University, replaced her traditional final exam format in exchange for a community service project infused with academics. Some other popular options include mini-presentations on different topics, poster symposiums, and open book exams.
One-off final exams simply place too much pressure on students to succeed for them to be considered viable options in the modern world.
With so many potential existing alternatives that require students to both interact with a variety of content and analyze material learned throughout a class, the job of final exams can be completed in a less stress-inducing manner.
Although straying away from tradition is difficult, doing so will truly signify to students that their schools value their mental well-being.
Ashvin Trehan is a senior at Metuchen High School. He has been working with the Hamilton Lab at Rutger University for more than a year, assisting in research into adolescent mental health and suicide. He also serves as co-chair of The Hamilton Lab’s youth advisory board.