Should Colleges Rethink Final Exams in the COVID Era? Some Profs Try 'Epic Finales'

Jul 15, 2020

As the pandemic hit and colleges shifted instruction online, professors were forced to quickly adapt, often throwing out their plans and hitting reset. For some educators that sudden shift led to some soul searching about what college teaching was all about.

That was the case with Stephanie Bailey, an assistant professor at Chapman University who was teaching an introductory physics course in the spring covering concepts like electricity and magnetism. In her syllabus written before the pandemic, she had planned a final exam with a series of physics problems for students to work out. But that just didn’t feel right with all that her students were going through.

“Many students felt huge anxieties and pressures associated with their futures and their careers, and what COVID and the pandemic meant for them in the short and long term,” she says. “I wanted to be very sensitive, and I didn’t believe that a traditional written exam would appropriately and adequately address those challenges.”

Here’s what Bailey did instead: She paired students with residents at a local senior-living home the professor partnered with, and she asked the students to do Zoom calls with them. It was an act of community service, since the seniors were on lockdown and were especially isolated.

What did that have to do with physics?

The students were supposed to explain some of the concepts they had learned in class.

What did the students think?

“I was definitely a little bit anxious to talk to them and see how they would receive the conversation,” said Natalie Richardi, a 19-year-old student in the class who suddenly found herself teaching physics concepts to a man in his late 80s.


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The students weren’t the only ones with some anxiety about this idea. Some in her department had tough questions about the approach as well. To be clear, the students all had to write an essay about what they talked about with their conversation partners in the senior living home, and these essays were supposed to demonstrate some of what they learned. But is this an appropriate way to assess student learning?

As it turns out, there is a small movement of professors who argue that even when we’re not in a pandemic, it’s time to do away with traditional finals as we know them, and replace them with something far more memorable, experiential and surprising.

Elon University professor Anthony Crider calls the approach “epic finales.” And it raises deep questions about what is supposed to happen in classrooms—whether in person or virtual.

On this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we’re looking into what happens when final exams are replaced by this idea of an epic finale. And listeners will hear surprising examples of what professors have tried, and how students responded. There are giant monoliths, trained chickens and robotic talking trash cans.

Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.


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