Traditional Examinations Versus Alternative Testing Methods


TO: Paul Trible, CNU President

FROM: Macee Wanner, CNU Student

DATE: May 18, 2015

SUBJECT: Final Examinations versus Alternate Testing Methods

The purpose of this report is to recommend abolishing sit-down final examinations in favor of take-home exams or papers. Take-home exams or papers would benefit the student body by greatly increasing retention rates and stress levels of students.

With classes increasingly favoring heavily-weighted final exams over equally-weighted ones throughout the semester, studies are showing little true learning is occurring. If these alternative methods were to be implemented, the learning process would be reformed and yield more desirable results. If students were to test better, it is likely that this would lead to higher individual GPAs.

Christopher Newport University’s mission statement claims that their “primary focus is excellence in teaching” to “provide outstanding undergraduate education” (Christopher Newport University). However, the current examination process prevents this and does not always lead to learning.  If CNU wants to spread its name and be successful, it should follow the example of schools that pioneered the creation of final examinations, Harvard and Yale. These schools are opting for alternative testing methods and are receiving favorable results. Not only would this benefit students, it would also benefit CNU. With higher GPAs, students may be able to enter higher advanced levels of the workforce and spread CNUs name. Potential students would also take this into consideration when applying to colleges and it may impact their decision.

An ethnographic approach was taken in addition to conducting a survey. When surveying CNU students, my findings suggest that many are interested and react positively towards alternative testing methods. They expressed that this would cut down on stress levels and hopefully lead to better retention in what they learned. I have attached my proposal which argues for why CNU should eliminate traditional sit-down finals. My methods of research include surveys and research related to the field.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this report on how eliminating sit-down final examinations in favor of an alternative will benefit Christopher Newport University. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me at or at (571) 344-1139.


Macee Wanner

Macee Wanner


Final Examinations and Alternative Methods

Prepared by: Macee Wanner

In May 2015, I researched ways to improve retention rates and improve student learning at Christopher Newport University. The purpose of this report is to convince CNU faculty that heavily-weighted, sit-down final examinations are not the most effective method for testing knowledge at the end of a semester. This was accomplished using an ethnographic approach and distributing a survey. This data was used to gauge the feelings of CNU students towards alternate testing methods. In my research I have found that universities are increasing turning to alternate methods as traditional examinations are examined. Schools like Harvard have slowly begun getting rid of final exams citing these reasons. These schools were some of the first to roll out written “biennial tests”, or final exams. In the years that followed, other campuses began to follow suit so by the late 19th century, these exams had become commonplace. Yet now Harvard is leading the end of finals, favoring alternatives instead. These other methods are said to lead to lower levels of stress, improved testing skills, and more retention of the knowledge learned in class. I recommend adopting one of these alternative methods or using equally-weighted weekly exams throughout a semester.

Keywords: Retention rates, stress, final examinations, learning, Christopher Newport University


          Final examinations are often viewed as a crucial step in the learning process and grades are often determined by heavily weighted exams at the end of the semester. However, recent studies show that final exams do not encourage learning, they hinder it. To solve this learning problem, final exams should be discontinued. With this done, the learning process will be reformed and yield more desirable results.

In an advancing America, final examinations are becoming a thing of the past. With studies showing that final exams do not improve grades or encourage learning, schools are slowly implementing programs that abolish finals. In some form, finals have been administered in America since the 1830s but the educational system is reforming (O’Brien 1).Once considered the ultimate test of knowledge, final exams are beginning to become obsolete. Evidence shows that they are now being replaced by take-home tests, presentations, and papers (O’Brien 5).

Leading schools like Harvard University have started to employ programs to put an end to final exams. In the 201 spring term, Harvard had 259 final exams for their 1137 undergraduate courses, which, at the time, the dean of undergraduate education claimed was the lowest number since 2002 (“Bye-bye, Blue Books” 2). This number has since decreased to 106 final exams for the fall semester of 2012 (Harvard University).  The numbers at Harvard have since prompted changes in schools like Cambridge and the University of Arizona. At Harvard, it is assumed that there will not be a final. While professors once had to file paperwork to forgo finals, they now have to fill out a request form if they intend to have a sit-down exam (Harvard University).

Studies show that frequent testing is more beneficial for learning (O’Brien 3).  A study done at Richard J. Daley College in Chicago showed that students who were tested weekly on algebra outperformed their classmates who were tested less frequently by about 16 percent at the end of the semester (Peterson, Vali 22). The same study showed that students who were tested biweekly had higher scores on their final exam and retained more knowledge (Peterson, Vali 17). When a class of 600 students in the University of Arizona was polled, 93 percent of students said they would prefer weekly quizzes over a large final, 78 percent said they learned more this way, and 98 percent said this method of testing causes less stress (O’Brien 7).

At times, all final examinations do is strike fear in the hearts of students. An entire week is devoted to cramming and studying where it boils down to a singular event where grade point averages can be vastly improved or destroyed. Sometimes students study simply so they do not fail. This process does not encourage learning, it teaches them to cram. Cramming is often synonymous with learning at a university level. The hallmark of the college experience entails a student cramming for a test the night before, staying up all night, and drinking coffee. When cramming, information is placed in short term storage and when this happens there will be no retrieval later, they forget most of the information (“Why Does Cramming” 2). This method of studying may yield positive results for a final exam, but it does not lead to learning.

David Jaffee, a professor at the University of North Florida, says that “human learning happens with there is retention and transfer; retention is the ability to remember what was learned more than two weeks after the end of the semester and transfer is the ability to use and apply that knowledge for subsequent understanding and analysis” (Jaffee 4). The goal of college is to encourage learning and foster skills that will be used later in life.  This problem is clearly illustrated in upper level courses when a professor asks why a student did not remember the information from prerequisite courses and the answer is simply that there was no real learning.

Exams that encourage blatant memorization of facts are also vanishing. With search engines like Google, the need for the memorization of simple facts has decreased. On this matter, Robert Banger-Drowns, dean of the school of education at the University of Albany said “if you looked at a lot of finals exams in courses, you’d think, ‘This is not a very valuable standard.’ These tests ask the kind of questions that students may never be asked again in their lives, in detail that they may never be asked again in their lives” (O’Brien 9).

Research Methods

The following steps were taken to gather the data for this report:

  1. Research was conducted on the effectivity of traditional final exams
  2. Alternative testing methods were examined to determine which method had the best success rate
  3. A questionnaire was distributed to undergraduate students at CNU with multiple choice and short answer questions
  4. The data was analyzed and interpreted
  5. A recommendation was made based off of the results

An ethnographic approach was taken in regards to this study. This theory examines a group of individuals who share in the same processes in the same place. These people often share beliefs and behaviors. The sample should be larger than 20 and give a more comprehensive look into what it is like to be a part of a specified group.

This approach can best be applied since it answers the question, what is it like to have tests as an ungraduated student at Christopher Newport University? The survey that was distributed to the group earned over 20 responses and should be able to give insight into the lives of the students. Furthermore, this research can be classified as a critical ethnography. This is because the approach was used in response to society and advocates to make change. In this study, the current approach used in society would be the traditional, sit-down final exam and the change would be adopting alternate testing methods.

To use this approach, a survey was sent out using Google Forms and was about 20 questions long. Multiple choice questions were used to gain information on the individual while short-answer questions were used to gauge feelings or interest levels. An ethnographic approach paired with a survey seemed to be the best option for this study. Google Forms provided the most flexibility with the question layout and overall was very easy to send out for responses.


 The following data was gathered:

  1. Research was conducted on the effectivity of traditional final exams

Sources from Harvard and the University of Florida discovered that students tested regularly and in small increments, tested better than those who took one cumulative final at the end of the semester. Additionally it was show that these types of exams led to excessive stress and cramming. When cramming occurred there was little retention, which meant little was being learned.

  1. Alternative testing methods were examined to determine which method had the best success rate

The top two alternatives included small tests throughout the year and final papers. For the first option, studies have shown that students who are tested weekly outperform classmates who are only tested at the end of the semester (Peterson, Vali 22). In this report it was stated that the biweekly testers tested better and retained more knowledge when asked to recall information. In this system it is recommended that tests are equally weighted so that more pressure it not placed on one. The second option entails forgoing final exams in favor of final essays. This should be able to test the depth of a student’s knowledge more. With a variety of search engines and convenient access to the internet, it is no longer necessary to have exams that call for simple recall of facts. Essays allow students to delve into topics and do independent research. This will encourage a student to explore more sides of an issue that interest them. Additionally a student is able to keep their paper so they can refer to this information in the future.

  1. A questionnaire was distributed to undergraduate students at CNU with multiple choice and short answer questions

The nineteen question survey was distributed to students and earned 31 responses.

  1. The data was analyzed and interpreted

The data provides insight into how students test at CNU. First of all it seems like a lot of cramming occurs. When asked how many days in advance they begin to prepare for a final, only six students answered with a number seven or above, instead most answered with one to three days in advanced. Another question asked “How many times last semester did you cram the night before an exam”? Again, these answers were very telling about how students study. Some students answered with high numbers, such as seven, while others wrote in responses like “too many times to count” and “I cram before every exam”. As previously stated, cramming does not lead to true learning. When this is done, information goes to short term storage and a student may not be able to recall the information later. This shows that the current system perpetuates, or at least does not discourage, cramming.

It is perhaps most important to see that students reacted favorably towards getting rid of traditional final examinations.

The first word cloud, shown in the data visualizations section,  shows the top 30 words students used when answering the question “what do you think about getting rid of traditional, sit-down finals”? Here, the negative words such as “stress” were used to say there would be less. Words such as “pressure,” “cram,” “procrastinate.” “sleep,” and “unhealthy” were used to describe the current system.

The words “examination” and “learning” need to take on a better meaning with CNU students. In the second and third images below, exams were related to the words “thorough” and “evaluation”. This simply shows that exams should be able to accurately assess knowledge. The point of exams is to learn. In the word cloud above, one of the most important words associated with learning is “lifelong”. This shows that students are supposed to be able to recall this information and use it throughout their lives.

  1. A recommendation was made based off of the results

From this research it can be concluded that the current traditional examination system in not effective. The word “learning” needs to stay true to its roots and ensure lifelong knowledge. This can be achieved better through smaller, weekly examinations or final essays. These options would reduce stress, allow for students to test better, and lead to more retention.

Data Visualizations

    Screenshot (141)  Screenshot (143)Screenshot (142)

 Works Cited

 “Bye-bye, Blue Books?.” Harvard Magazine. Web. 21 May. 2015.

“Exams- Registrar’s Office.” Harvard University. Web. 18 May. 2015.

“Final Exam Schedule.” Harvard University. Web. 20 May. 2015.

Jaffee, David. “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 21 May. 2015.

O’Shaughnessy, Lynn . “5 Hardest and Easiest College Majors by GPA’s.” CBS News. Web. 20 May. 2015.

“Our Mission.” Christopher Newport University. Web. 24 May. 2015.

O’Brien, Keith. “The Test in Canceled.” Boston Globe. Web. 21 May. 2015.

Peterson, Euguenia, and Vali Siadat. “Combination of Formative and Summative Assessment Instruments in Elementary Algebra Classes: A Prescription for Success.” Richard J. Daley College. Web. 20 May. 2015.

“Why Does Cramming Not Work?” Test Cramming. Web. 21 May. 2015.



 Questions from the survey:

  1. How many classes did you take last semester?
  2. How many finals did you have?
  3. How many days before your final exams did you start preparing?
  4. How many times last semester did you cram the night before an exam?
  5. When cramming, did you retain that knowledge?
  6. Rate your stress level on a scale of 1 to 10 during finals week
  7. Do you get more, less, or the same amount of sleep during finals week?
  8. Do you prefer final exams, papers, or presentations?
  9. Why?
  10. Do you think you can display more knowledge through exams or papers?
  11. Why?
  12. Do you prefer cumulative or non-cumulative exams?
  13. Do you think cumulative or non-cumulative exams are more effective?
  14. Would you prefer having small weekly tests or 1 final at the end of the semester?
  15. Would you keep up with your studies more with weekly tests?
  16. What words do you associate with final exams?
  17. How do you feel about finals?
  18. How do you feel about heavily-weighted exams?
  19. What do you think about getting rid of traditional, sit-down finals?

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