Cumulative finals: Are they doing more harm than good?


Mark Hryciw, Tribune Content Agency

Finals week causes students’ stress levels to skyrocket, and cumulative final exams only make it worse.

Kayla Lewis, Staff Writer

As we wrap up the semester and head into the long-awaited summer break that we all rightfully deserve, there is one last obstacle we’re forced to face as college students: Finals week.

Nobody enjoys finals week. But if you’re one of the unlucky students this semester being subjected to a cumulative final in one or more of your classes, the brutal week is just that much more daunting.

Cumulative exams aim to give students the opportunity to prove what they’ve learned over the past 16 weeks, as these exams assess their knowledge on all of the information they’ve been taught throughout the semester. More often than not, these types of exams overwhelm students, leaving them scrambling two weeks prior to their final in an attempt to quickly review information that they were taught months ago. One of the only things cumulative exams show is a student’s ability to cram content, something that professors often fail to realize.

As cumulative exams contain questions on every unit taught throughout the semester, students must study all of the coursework they’ve learned to prepare for the exam accordingly. This is a massive amount of material for students to review, especially if they’re being asked to do the same by several other professors. Additionally, the weight that these exams carry is immense. Final exams can easily be the difference of an entire letter grade. 

While they should be responsibly reviewing past lessons throughout the semester, college students live extremely active and highly scheduled lives. Many are involved in campus life, work jobs, play sports, or have other responsibilities. It’s simply unrealistic to expect them to find the spare time to review previously taught information on a daily, or even weekly basis during the semester. 

Aside from being another stressor to college students’ jam-packed week, final exams can also be redundant. Midterms serve the purpose of testing students on the information they were taught from the first half of the semester. This makes cumulative exams useless, as they force students to be re-tested on content they’ve already been evaluated on. In cases where students have already proven their knowledge of the first eight weeks of class material, these exams are pointlessly excessive.

It’s fair to say the majority of college students are not in favor of cumulative exams. But on the other hand, many professors believe that they are beneficial. This belief can be understandable when it comes to certain majors. However, some professors that assign cumulative exams fail to teach the content of their course in a way that guarantees the students’ ability to truly understand it. Naturally, this causes problems for students when the day of their final exam draws nearer. 

By using teaching methods that promote true absorption of content, rather than memorization, instructors can help their students actually grasp the information. Teaching through multiple learning styles, practicing repetition of key information, and incorporating past material into coursework can reinforce retention of content in students. In turn, this can help reduce students’ stress levels once the final exam rolls around, as they can rely on their true understanding of the information. 

Although a handful of classes warrant a cumulative exam, this doesn’t change the fact that they can negatively impact students’ mental health.

With the nerves that overwhelm college students when it’s time to face any type of exam, the fear of forgetting information they learned can prohibit their ability to focus. According to the American Test Anxiety Association, it’s estimated that around 40% of the student population struggles with test anxiety. This type of performance anxiety can severely disrupt one’s ability to focus when the pressure to do well feels debilitating. Since test anxiety occurs during any type of exam, it’s likely these emotions will be heightened when the exam is cumulative. 

While long-term retention of material is the goal, there’s a question that lies: Are cumulative exams truly a good way to assess students’ knowledge of content if it begins to negatively affect them physically and mentally? If students learn coursework material through a teaching style that supports long-term retention, cumulative exams can be quite beneficial. However, without this important aspect, these exams can have a negative effect on students and do more harm than good.