Lariat Letter: Rethink, refine finals

I am writing to comment on “Comprehensive finals get an F for effectiveness,” published April 4, based on my 19 years of experience as a student and 43 years of experience as a professor of mechanical engineering. When I was a student, my most challenging study was done for comprehensive final exams, which most in engineering are. I am certain that my most significant learning took place putting the whole course together, and this capstone learning experience was when the concepts were finally tattooed onto my brain.

As a professor, I have never known of any professor who encouraged students to study merely to pass exams (though apparently this is a problem at University of North Florida). The amount of long-term learning that takes places during studying for exams depends entirely on whether the exams test the students’ understanding of important concepts or just asks for regurgitation of insignificant facts using multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions.

I learned early in my teaching career that students learn what you inspect, not what you expect. If it were not so, we could dispense with all exams. And trust me, making and grading a quality comprehensive final exam is the most time-consuming thing that I do each semester, because studying for it will be the students’ most valuable learning experience. Do you really think that professors who do this carefully do it primarily to determine grades?

The Lariat staff could have argued with considerable merit that students’ learning and assessment is better served in some courses by a term project or paper (Amen!) and that final exams where appropriate should be designed to encourage the development of understanding of important concepts and provide an accurate assessment of how well students achieved this understanding. Some improvements are warranted.

-Walter L. Bradley, Ph.D., P.E., Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering