February 1, 2022

AGGARWAL | A “Final” Consideration for Final Exams

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The eventuality of alert level red seemed impossible to me — I  figured that the highest alert level was merely a drastic measure that we would never actually have to use. Last semester especially, with vaccinations widely available and the recent arrival of booster shots, I had not honestly given consideration to anything but in-person final exams, seeing as the entire instructional semester maintained in-person activities successfully.

When the time came, though, I knew Cornell would sound the red alert alarms before the University’s COVID tracking dashboard even reported the case numbers. In a matter of a few days, an alarming percentage of my close friends were either confirmed positive for COVID or had been told they were in recent contact with someone who had contracted the virus. 

It wasn’t hard to extrapolate how the spread had happened — in the traditional rush to jam end-of-semester celebrations in before finals, there was an evident assumption that we would be okay and well within the range of cases that would allow us to end the semester normally. Well, a new, drastically more contagious variant of the virus had other thoughts. In a matter of a few days, the caseload on campus skyrocketed, and the campus was thrust into a state of frenzy. 

The stress of having to figure out travel plans and safety protocols while also fulfilling the responsibilities of being a student through the most academically intense part of the semester was a daunting burden. Eventually, our administration came to the responsible decision that finals needed to be moved online to avoid large gatherings. Many students, including myself, saw this as a chance to breathe and recalibrate our lives to the unpredictable situation we were presented with. Many professors even took it upon themselves to show unprecedented kindness toward students and arranged for the maximum amount of flexibility, making exams optional or changing to more favorable grading schemas. 

Thus, like many other students, I experienced taking finals for some of my classes while also having the option not to for others — Cornell presented me with a natural experiment that enabled me to evaluate the effects of online and optional final exams from a student perspective. Finals for most classes are the norm — a cumulative and oftentimes more rigorous assessment of the course material. Though they may skew towards material taught in the waning weeks of the semester, they largely challenge students to refamiliarize themselves with 14 or more weeks of material. Similar to every other student, I can speak from personal experience that this is a trying task, one that generations before us have also suffered through. 

Instead, this most recent finals season gave me an opportunity to reflect on the logic behind finals and whether the goals intended are often achieved. Finals are meant to push students to demonstrate an accurate understanding of a course’s material. But therein lies an assumption that the best way to assess material is to assess it cumulatively for an entire semester. However, our prelims generally focus on recent material, providing an odd contradiction to the classic finals framework. 

So, why are finals cumulative? Perhaps it is because students are theoretically given more time to prepare for these exams. However, due to increased workloads from all classes, the proportion of time students allot studying for each of their classes remains largely the same. 

That leads me to my next question: did my mastery of course materials actually improve with mandatory finals as opposed to optional ones? Personally, for my classes without final assessments, I left the semester with a weaker understanding of the material covered after the second round of prelims. But don’t take this to mean that finals are achieving what they set out to accomplish. 

Generally, earlier exams cover a smaller set of information in greater detail. Thus, students maintain a stronger understanding of the material covered. So while the final can be a good reminder of course material overall, it most often serves as a source of stress for students. Perhaps, instead of having cumulative final exams that nominally focus more on the end of the semester’s material, these exams instead should do so explicitly with the understanding that prelims ensure mastery of the prior components of the curriculum.

From this experience, I challenge professors, instructors, teaching assistants and even my fellow students to use the unique situation that we were presented with in December 2021 as a chance to break from tradition and to honestly assess the purpose finals are to serve. COVID has challenged us in many ways that we probably hope to never experience again. But while we are here, stuck from time to time in quarantine, now is the perfect time to reflect on the objective of finals and whether cumulative exams are adequately achieving their intended purpose. I suspect they may not be.


Somil Aggarwal (he/him) is a senior in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected] print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.