What does it mean for students when final exams become worth 40, 50, and even 60 percent of our overall grade?

Everybody knows the dreaded month of final exams, when coffee and donuts become the go to meal, the library sometimes seems more like a home, and the student uniform changes from mom jeans and blundstones to sweatpants and blundstones. Many students also know the fear of a final exam worth 40 or 50 percent. Despite studying for days, anxiety tells you it won’t be enough to not sink your grade. This begs the question, do finals, especially finals worth that much of your grade, even help students achieve success?

There have been numerous studies on the downsides to standardized testing. The Educational Development Center at Carleton U has looked into this, stating that finals lead to unnecessary stress, encourage students to only retain info for a short period of time, and promotes artificial stressful conditions that don’t prepare students for real world stress. A professor noted the change in her class when the focus became less about absorbing everything for exam regurgitation and more on learning and discussion.

These negatives of exams are only exacerbated when the exam is worth a large portion of the grade. Knowing that your exam is worth 40% means that not doing well will lower your final mark by a significant percent. Thus, the focus becomes less on learning and more on memorization, cramming, and regurgitation, all with added stress. I know the sick feeling of walking into an exam fearing a tanked grade; it's not a feeling I relish.

From the eyes of a British exchange student, there is an incredibly similar problem in the UK, or at least I have found that as a Politics BA student. Each academic year my skills for each module are tested at two key assessment points: early January and May. Typically, this comes with a 40% piece of course work during January and an 60% exam during May. The stakes will be much higher when I return for my final year in September, with one piece of coursework counting for 100% of each of the four modules I will take.

From my experience, the assignments that have always tripped me up are the ones due in January. After a long term of studying, the one thing we yearn for over the Christmas break is a chance to unwind and reset while catching up with loved ones; but, this is hard to do with the shadow of 4 coursework essays worth 40% each due early in the new year.

This highlights a slight contradiction with the higher education system in the UK. There has been a huge push of initiatives in the UK recently to aid students who struggle with their mental health. Yet, with all these new introductions it appears we may have overlooked the issue right in front of us in the system we already have in place. As we have mentioned, there are significant studies showing how there are more benefits for students to test their abilities with assessments worth lower percentages, but perhaps with more frequency. This would allow students to prove what they have learnt without a extreme anxiety induced pressure. While diamonds may be made under pressure, many students simply get overwhelmed.

Being an exchange student in a different education system has given me a unique ability to view my university assessment style through a fresh pair of eyes. Obviously, no system is without its flaws. However, it is important to remember what the real purpose of getting a university education is.

Ultimately, school should not be about cramming, stress, and fear. School should be an environment in which learning, discussion, and sharing of knowledge is the focus.

No more normalizing the overtired student who is so stressed they barely have time to shower. No more normalizing the isolation necessary to ensure studying and good marks. Let’s instead shift away from simply fulfilling requirements and use our opportunity for higher education the way it should be used.