Jonathan Zimmerman: Final Exams at Harvard are So Twentieth Century

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

A few years ago, a student asked me why I rarely give final examinations in my classes. I paused a moment, reflecting on my own college years.

“I never learned much from them,” I told her. The majority of my exams required me to regurgitate, not to think. And when the tests were over, I promptly forgot most of what I had memorized.

I recalled this exchange as I read about the latest controversy at Harvard University, which – because it’s Harvard – has made national headlines. Earlier this year, the university announced that it would no longer expect its courses to conclude with final exminations. In the past, professors were supposed to obtain approval if they did not intend to give a final exam; from now on, though, they will need to notify the university if they do wish to give one.
Lower standards?

Conservative critics quickly pounced on the news, decrying Harvard’s new policy as a symbol of everything that ails American schooling. “Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience,” wrote Chester Finn and Micky Muldoon, both Harvard graduates, in a widely circulated article for National Review Online.

But the critics have it exactly backwards. Final examinations reflect an antiquated and largely discredited theory of learning, which equates knowledge with factual recall. By discouraging exams, then, Harvard is hardly forsaking academic rigor. Instead, it’s clearing the way for a more engaging, challenging, and truly educative college experience....

So by all means, let’s demand more of our students – and of our professors – at American universities. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that final examinations will solve the problem. To the contrary, our biggest test right now is to move beyond tests. Let’s hope we can pass it.

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