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Head-to-Head: Would you rather write final exams or final papers?

November 23 2018 —

Final exams are ‘one-and-done

By Jason Herring

Exam season is coming up. This December marks the 12th exam period of my degree, including spring and summer terms. I’ve learned a lot throughout that stretch — though perhaps still less than my professors would have liked. I’ve also developed a strong preference for final exams over final papers or projects.

When you walk out of a final exam, you’ll have fulfilled your course obligations. Whether you excelled or floundered, you no longer have to dedicate mental energy to the class. Final exams offer a sense of immediate closure. It can be liberating to walk out of an exam room knowing that the next time you think about the course will be when you check your grades a few weeks later.

On the other hand, final papers are a spectre that can hang over your head long after you’ve put your finishing touches on them. I often place an expectation of perfection on myself with final papers — if I’ve got a few weeks to work on it, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be flawless. But creating something perfect is a near-impossible task. The pressure to do so can drive you crazy.

If an exam isn’t perfect when time’s up, that’s a pill you have to swallow, as opposed to final papers, where you can obsess over minutiae. Combining this with the freedom to procrastinate — switching on Netflix when you’ve got writer’s block isn’t an option sitting in an exam room — makes final papers a more mentally taxing exercise than exams.

That isn’t to say that there’s no pressure to prepare during the stretch leading up to final exams. One of the worst feelings in university is sitting down at your desk and opening your exam booklet to realize that you don’t know nearly as much as you should about the topic you’ll be tested on for the next two hours. But studying is a different beast altogether from writing, researching or creating, one that I find less intimidating. Plus, I’ve had some final papers with due dates that nearly stretch into the following semester. Being done early lets you enjoy the brief break between terms much more fully.

No matter which way you present them, finals are never going to be a walk in the park. But sitting down in an exam room to write a test is a far better experience than sitting down at home to pore over a paper.


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Final papers allow better demonstration of knowledge

By Evan Giles

Depending on your major or the type of learner you are, you might have a strong opinion as to whether final papers or exams are preferable. As a communications major, which has a heavy emphasis on writing, I’d much rather write papers. Here are some reasons why I think writing final papers is better than final exams.

Written assignments let you explore course topics in different ways, allowing a certain amount of creative freedom to showcase your understanding of the course material. Exams are very structured and don’t allow you to think outside of the box. When answering short- and long-answer questions on exams, you’re never going to make a better argument in a 90-minute writing session than you would when writing over the span of days or weeks.

Under a time crunch, you are more likely to make sentence structure or grammatical mistakes that hinder the overall quality of your answer, detracting from showing what you actually know. Papers give you the benefit of time to catch these mistakes, increasing the quality of your work.

Papers are also an overall better learning tool compared to writing an exam. We’ve all heard professors tell us this at the start of every new semester: “Studies show that you remember more if you handwrite your notes instead of typing them.”

While this statement is likely partially motivated by profs not wanting students to get distracted, the principle also applies to writing a paper. You’re more likely to remember arguments that you made in a paper versus spewing out an answer on an exam, making for a more meaningful connection to the class content.

Ultimately, which evaluation method is better comes down to personal preference. Still, final papers are better for overall student enjoyment compared to a traditional multiple choice or short- and long-answer exams. They allow for better opportunities to engage with the material and explore different ways to approach it. Writing papers helps prepare you for the real world a lot better than written exams, since writing is an applicable skill no matter what job you eventually land.

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