Final Exams Look Different This Year Amid Distance Learning


Riley Huddleston

As the end of the semester approaches, different teachers are giving different types of final assessments. From projects to timed exams, teachers are finding ways to adapt their final exams during distance learning. Staff illustration: Riley Huddleston.

Riley Huddleston, Assistant Spread Editor

While the end of the first semester has conventionally involved final exams in multiple classes, this school year has seen some changes. As the pandemic alters norms, different academic departments have had to decide how to conduct a final exam remotely or whether they should offer one at all. The Menlo Upper School program splits class finals between the spring and the winter. Science, history, English and elective final exams take place in the winter while math and language final exams take place in the spring.

Science class final exams will differ from grade to grade this year, which Science Department Chair James Formato attributes to different maturity levels. “We’ve kind of tried to address changes [in the final exam] based on the age and […] academic maturity of students,” Formato said. Ninth grade physics classes are conducting a unit test instead of a cumulative final. 10th grade chemistry classes will also have a unit test, but with one cumulative subsection that includes material from the entire semester. 11th grade biology classes will be having an open note cumulative final exam.

Formato believes that the science classes’ modified finals are responding to the challenge of connecting with students over deep topics in distance learning. “We don’t think that a semester final will help us with our goals,” Formato said. “Especially for the younger students, [the goal is] to get them to learn good science skills.”

Science teacher Tanya Buxton teaches Biology, AT Biology and Biotechnology and plans on having a timed, open note final for all of her classes. Buxton thinks projects and final exams are important for science classes and views the end of the first semester as her opportunity to conduct a cumulative final. “I do [feel that for science] that it’s good to synthesize all of the concepts,” Buxton said. 

Meanwhile, history classes will be focusing on assessing skills rather than content, and each history teacher will decide whether their class has a final exam, according to History Department Chair Carmen Borbón. Borbón personally believes that a cumulative assessment is important, whether it be in test or project form, because it allows students to demonstrate the course content and skills they’ve learned throughout the year.

History teacher Katharine Hanson teaches AP European history and a history class called War and Peace: The Modern Middle East. Both of her classes will be having a timed final exam. She believes that over the course of a year, a class should have a variety of assessment types as it gives students experience in different areas and allows them to find what they excel at. “Some students do great in class discussion, [and] some students do great in long term projects where they can think things over, but there are some students whose best moment is nailing a test,” Hanson said.

Junior Maya Julian-Kwong feels that finals are necessary for some subjects, but it can be less stressful to have a mix of exams and projects. “Having four or more exams to study for at once can be hard, so when classes choose to have a project instead, it is a good way to show what I’ve learned with less stress,” Julian-Kwong said. “In distance learning, I can also understand that weighing the pros and cons of each can be difficult for teachers.”

Ninth and 10th grade English classes have both foregone final exams this year and are replacing them with writing projects. “We think students get more practice [with] their skills by doing a normal, supported essay project, so we’ve been doing that for the last few weeks,” English Department Chair Margaret Ramsey said. AP English teachers and senior English teachers decided on plans for final exams separately, and AP classes are the only classes conducting a timed final exam.

Ramsey believes final exams are a way for students to showcase what they learned throughout the semester in a meaningful way. “I guess I would say that assessments, essays or projects are an important part of the learning cycle,” Ramsey said. “It is how students are able to really feel pride and confidence in their skills, […] and that opinion extends to all culminating work, not just final exams.” While the AP classes are the only English classes conducting timed essays for the exam, Ramsey thinks that for AP classes, it is important to have experience in the timed environment.

English teacher Rachel Blumenthal teaches ninth and 10th grade English classes, which are both ending the semester with projects. Her ninth grade classes are writing an essay on the novel We the Animals, which they are reading. In contrast, her 10th grade classes wrote an analytical essay and created a poetry podcast project. “It means we get to kind of unwind during finals week rather than ramping up again for another big project,” Blumenthal said. Like Hanson, Blumenthal sees the pros and cons of both a project and a timed exam. “The thing I find the most valuable about exams is actually all of the prep leading up to it. […] It’s like how do you prepare for something big,” Blumenthal said. “Projects [provide] a […] space to be creative and to develop your thought and to be self reflective about what you’re doing.”