Joe Barth

Students hate writing exams and professors hate marking them, so why do universities still use exams to evaluate students?

“I like examinations,” says Prof. Joe Barth, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. He gave a talk called “The Case for a Return to Prevalence of Examinations in Student Evaluation” during the Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference on campus May 1.

When Barth was a U of G student in the early 1970s, he was required to write midterms and final exams that covered the entire course. Today, however, a growing number of undergraduate courses are eliminating final exams. At Harvard, for example, only about one-quarter of undergraduate courses and two per cent of graduate courses have finals.

One of the biggest reasons why exams get a failing grade is the stress they cause students and professors alike. But Barth says experiencing “time and performance stress” prepares students for the real world, where they will be required to face deadlines and performance tests on the job. “We’re actually preparing them for life,” he says. Doctors, lawyers and accountants must pass final exams before receiving their professional designations, he adds, and these types of comprehensive exams cover several years of study.

When deciding whether to take a course, students often ask the professor whether there will be a final exam. They’re more likely to take a course without a final because they think it will be easier. According to a study by Cornell University, students taking courses without finals spend more time watching TV instead of doing coursework or studying.

Research also shows that failure rates are one-third lower in courses that are entirely assignment-based with no final exam. “I think it’s easier to pass with assignments,” says Barth. To pass an exam, “you need to really internalize the material and really understand it in order to write answers. With an assignment, there’s any number of ways of skimming along.” Since exams are written in a controlled environment, he adds, cheating is less prevalent, whereas take-home exams and group assignments allow students to share their answers.

Studying for exams also enhances learning and retention. “Repetition is the mother of learning,” says Barth, recalling the Latin phrase he learned – and repeated – in high school. It’s easier to learn a poem, for example, by writing it out several times than by reading it: “If you do something more than once and there’s a time interval in between, you learn better.”

Exams also force students to study harder, especially if the exams are worth a significant percentage of their final grade. Exams worth more than 50 per cent encourage more learning than those worth 20 or 30 per cent, says Barth. “Knowing that there’s going to be a cumulative final actually does change the way people study, and it changes the way they study for the better.”

Evaluating students on an individual basis is easier with exams than with group projects in which some students do more work than others yet all get the same grade. “Peer evaluation is a flawed technique. At the end of the day, it’s not a good way of turning a group work mark into an individual score.”

Exam validity depends on a combination of three factors: what is taught in class, the course materials (such as texts and readings) and the examination questions. Gaps between any of these factors reduce the validity of the exam as an evaluation tool. “Valid exams mean students are happier with the exam. They’re much happier because what they studied in the book fits with what the prof says at the front of the room, which fits with the questions that are going to be asked.”

What makes a good exam? It should cover the course material evenly to encourage students to study everything. “It’s really disconcerting when you study a lot of material,” says Barth, “and you find out half of it’s not on the exam or the half that you studied isn’t on the exam, which means you failed the exam despite having studied a lot.”

He says instructors should design exams so that all students can answer at least 50 per cent of the questions correctly – if they studied – and 75 per cent of the students should finish the exam in 75 per cent of the time allotted.