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Final exams at Harvard are so 20th-century

Harvard University is moving further away from final exams. And that’s a good thing.

A few years ago, a student asked me why I rarely give final examinations in my classes. I paused a moment, reflecting on my own college years.

“I never learned much from them,” I told her. The majority of my exams required me to regurgitate, not to think. And when the tests were over, I promptly forgot most of what I had memorized.

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I recalled this exchange as I read about the latest controversy at Harvard University, which – because it’s Harvard – has made national headlines. Earlier this year, the university announced that it would no longer expect its courses to conclude with final exminations. In the past, professors were supposed to obtain approval if they did not intend to give a final exam; from now on, though, they will need to notify the university if they do wish to give one.

Lower standards?

Conservative critics quickly pounced on the news, decrying Harvard’s new policy as a symbol of everything that ails American schooling. “Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience,” wrote Chester Finn and Micky Muldoon, both Harvard graduates, in a widely circulated article for National Review Online.

But the critics have it exactly backwards. Final examinations reflect an antiquated and largely discredited theory of learning, which equates knowledge with factual recall. By discouraging exams, then, Harvard is hardly forsaking academic rigor. Instead, it’s clearing the way for a more engaging, challenging, and truly educative college experience.

To see why, consider an example from my own field: American history. Imagine a test that instructs students to identify and describe five of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. Then imagine a take-home essay assignment, asking the students to explain what – if anything – our present-day leaders should borrow, apply, or adapt from Roosevelt’s policies.

Most of us grew up with exercises like the first one, so we’re inclined to favor them. They’re factual, after all, requiring students to memorize an objective body of information. By comparison, the essay assignment seems abstract and deeply subjective. It asks for opinions, not facts.

Fact + opinion = real knowledge

Over the past two decades, however, a large body of research in cognitive psychology has challenged this entire dichotomy. To develop real knowledge in a discipline, students must master facts and construct opinions about them. Facts without opinion are irrelevant data points, forgotten as quickly as they are absorbed.

And opinion without fact is humbug, which you can hear on any talk radio show – or at your local coffee shop.

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So facts do matter. But students must learn how to make them matter: that is, how to select, organize, and present facts on behalf of a point of view. The best opinions are the ones that draw clearly upon reputable facts; the worst opinions are the ones that don’t. And education should teach us the difference.

Can final examinations do that? Not in their typical format. When I do give finals, I distribute essay questions a week or two beforehand. That way, students can do the real work of learning – synthesis, analysis, and evaluation – as they prepare.

Here some critics will surely accuse me – like Harvard – of going easy on the students. Giving out the questions before the test? Why not just give them the answers, while you’re at it?

Because the answers are theirs, not mine. And a good answer requires much more forethought than the usual exam schedule allows. Maybe you could frame a coherent, logical, and factually accurate critique of the New Deal in an hour. I couldn’t.

But I could spit out what my professor – or my textbook – has told me.

And that’s what most exams ask us to do. Here are five New Deal reforms; here are four causes of the Civil War. Better memorize them, because they’re going to be on the test.

In the guise of toughness and “accountability,” then, final exams actually let all of us – students, faculty, and administrators – off the hook. And if we really cared about learning, we’d devise more creative ways to expand and measure it.

The bigger problem at college

Alas, most college instruction appears to be moving in the opposite direction. In their forthcoming book, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show that students’ ability to reason, analyze and articulate is directly related to the amount of reading and writing that they are assigned: the more we require, the more they learn.

But in their sample of over 2,300 college students, Arum and Roksa found that half of them had not taken a single class during the prior semester that required even a modest 20 pages of total writing! That’s not a misprint; it’s a tragedy. And we should all be ashamed about it.

So by all means, let’s demand more of our students – and of our professors – at American universities. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that final examinations will solve the problem. To the contrary, our biggest test right now is to move beyond tests. Let’s hope we can pass it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”