The Importance of Mandatory and Cumulative Final Exams

Mandatory and cumulative finals are used in each and every course I instruct; this is an absolute teaching principle of mine. Unfortunately, the current trends in colleges are moving away from final exams as illustrated by an article entitled, “Harvard Says Goodbye to Final Exams.” At Harvard in the spring 2010 semester, out of nearly 1,140 undergraduate courses, professors elected to have a final exam in only 23% of these courses. Starting this current fall 2010 semester, Harvard professors will have to file a request to give a final exam by the end of the first week. If an instructor does not to do so, the assumption shall be that the instructor will not be giving a final examination.

I am perplexed by Harvard’s position and how often final examinations are neither mandatory and/or cumulative at today’s universities. Educational theory supports the huge benefit of students reviewing course materials frequently and cumulatively. Final exams create an important cumulative review of both course content and practice applying concepts that result in:

  • Revisiting concepts, approaches and terminology later in a semester. This often results in a better overall understanding. Students benefit from a perspective containing a “bigger picture” having been exposed to the entire course when going back and reviewing portions covered earlier in the semester.
  • Heightening retention so that knowledge gained in a course can be applied later in the workplace. Separate from the beneficial studying process for a cumulative final exam, a student knowing that this cumulative final will take place at the end of the term heightens aggregate retention during the semester. Students have the additional motivation to retain knowledge throughout the semester that they may not otherwise. See research from Memory and Cognition, 2007 “Expectation of a Final Cumulative Test Enhances Long-term Retention.”

So why is it not automatic that all professors require students to have mandatory and cumulative final exams? Too much latitude is given by administrators and departmental oversight faculty in making this determination, which is usually the total prerogative of the professor. Although students do not like having to take cumulative final exams, it is in the students’ best academic interests to require this important learning experience. I believe the significant reduction of mandatory and cumulative finals is due to a combination of the following factors:

  • Administration and grading effort reduced
  • Personal interests over student academic interests
  • Professors with mandatory and cumulative finals are penalized on student evaluations
  • Optional finals used as an incentive for good semester performance

Administration and Grading Effort Reduced

Research, publishing, grant writing, presentations and committee work are the priorities of the vast majority of today’s undergraduate faculty and graduate students. Instructing students comes after the above priorities, which drive tenure, compensation and day-to-day departmental recognition. This imbalance of faculty priorities towards student education is further concluded from my observations during four years of departmental meetings where not once have I witnessed an acknowledgment on the teaching merits of a faculty member.

A professor has no real incentive or expectation from their department heads or university administration to incur the significant incremental time involved in developing, administering and grading a final exam. Administrative oversight needs to (i) communicate to faculty the importance of cumulative final exams from an academic learning process standpoint and (ii) make them mandatory.

Personal Interests over Student Academic Interests

One of my oversight course coordinators, who was also teaching sections in the course, explained to me his motivation for not giving final exams. It was totally based on his personal interests, not at all from a student educational perspective. Each semester he would give a third, non-cumulative test on the last, normal class of the semester; no cumulative final exam was given during the exam week. This allowed him a full additional week of time off to travel to visit his family. This situation reinforces my belief that university administrators need to dictate final exam policy as left up to the individual professor its human nature to take the easy road and short-cut the student’s academic learning experience.

Professors with Mandatory and Cumulative Finals are Penalized on Student Evaluations

Currently the vast majority of instructor evaluations that administrators and department heads rely on are end-of-the-semester, anonymous, online, numerical student feedback surveys. These evaluations are completed at the end of the semester, immediately prior or during final exam week. Contrast a professor giving a challenging, mandatory and cumulative final versus a professor either giving no final or an optional final. The vast majority of students do not reward professors with a good evaluation based on how much they have been pushed and motivated to learn. On the contrary, most students reward professors that have easy course requirements and those that are liberal graders. This creates a detrimental incentive for professors to cater towards being popular with students and compromises the important learning experience of cumulative final exams.

I did a search on Facebook on the topic of “Cumulative Finals” and immediately located what I believe is the prevailing sentiment of most college students:

Page Title: Down with the cumulative final exam!

Category: Common Interest – Beliefs & Causes

Description: For all you people who fall behind after the midterm exam and come to finals having to know not only the stuff you just barely learned after the midterm, but also the stuff from the first half of the semester…and I hate it.

Its human nature for students to desire the path of least resistance/the easy road, but this path is not in the students’ best academic interests.

Optional Finals Used as an Incentive for Good Semester Performance

I have never understood the logic of professors using optional final exams as an incentive to reward good semester performance. It is just as important for a high-achieving student to benefit from the review process of a cumulative final exam as those students with lower grades. Again, professors cater towards trying to please students, not understanding what is in the students’ best academic interests.

Assigning a Large Portion of Total Grade to the Final Exam, Otherwise Students Cruise

Unless the final exam counts a big portion of the final grade; students too often have a margin of cushion and therefore do not adequately apply themselves. The frequent enticement to cruise on the final, because it won’t affect their grade, too often robs the student of the worthwhile learning experience from exerting a quality preparation effort. Let’s use a numeric example to illustrate this issue. Assume the final exam counts only 20% of the final grade and student has an 87 average in the class going into the final. Assuming a B is 80-89 and an A is 90-100; a student can get as low as a 52 on the final and still receive a B with an 80 final average. To receive an A in the course, it would require getting a 100 on the exam which most students would assume is unlikely and therefore take the cruise option.

Another way to address this final exam cruising problem is to use plusses and minuses on grades that directly impact the overall grade point average (GPA). Using the example above, the student has a greater incentive to raise their grades to a B+ or A-, and furthermore the fear of protecting their grade from not falling to a B- or C+. At one school where I teach you can award an A+ (counts as 4.3 toward the GPA) which is terrific as this is an excellent motivation for your top students to take their final exam preparation seriously.

Students Reviewing Final Exam is a Lost Opportunity; Time Should Allow for Learning Process to Occur

It is unfortunate that once students complete their final exams the only thing they are concerned about is the grade they received. My final exams are comprised of real-world situations where students apply their acquired course knowledge. Students would benefit greatly from seeing more than just their grade. Reviewing what they understood and most importantly areas of deficiency, they could expand their understanding by seeing how exercises were intended to be solved and/or approached.

Every semester I encourage students to come to my office to review their final exams (in addition to receiving their grades online) as they will learn a lot from what they got right and wrong. With the exception of two foreign exchange students that came for this purpose, the only students that come have been displeased with their final exam and course grades.

Grade submission time frames are very tight and do not allow professors to incorporate either a required or optional incentive program to get students to review their final exams. Unfortunately students do not have the foresight to show interest in the course by meeting with the professor, perhaps not knowing that assistance in letters of recommendation, references and job-networking might be heightened.

Propelling Undergraduate Business School Administrators to Develop Necessary Policies

I advocate that college administrators at the university or departmental level address and debate the merits of cumulative and mandatory final exams. Without directly addressing the use of cumulative final exams, their existence will continue to diminish which may already be below 25% based on the Harvard University study. Once a determination has been made, consistent policy needs to adopted in order to minimize the individual prerogatives of professors which may not reflect the students’ best academic interests. Without uniform adherence, the professors waiving or providing optional cumulative final exams will come under unfair student scrutiny and receive lower course evaluations.


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