School Silliness: The Value of the Final Exam

This story is not about a student, but rather, it’s about another teacher!

We’re currently in the middle of Finals Week (AKA Dead Week). That dreaded time in American schooling where the big, end-of-term exam will either make or break your grade. College students (the hard-working ones anyway) are known to spend most of the week studying and reviewing their material. They forfeit hours of precious sleep in order to cram as much forgotten information into their brains as possible. High school students? Probably not so much. This isn’t the SAT/ACT we’re talking about.

It always amuses me when students, usually the failing ones, come to me and ask, “If I do guud on the final, will it bump my grade up so I can pass the class?”

Try doing “guud” on more of your assignments first. How about turning them in to start with?

It really depends on how much the final is worth, but usually…no. I generally don’t make the final count for that much percentage of your overall grade to have a significant bearing on it. Many teachers, myself included, only make the summative assessments worth 20-30% of your grade…at most! Other parts of your grade are things like assignments, projects, participation, attendance, etc.

It’s all laid out in the syllabus that you didn’t bother to read at the start of the year.

Mr. Marcus and the Art of the Final Exam

Let me tell you a story about a certain teacher we’ll call Mr. Marcus (not his real name). Mr. Marcus is currently retired, but I’ve had a few opportunities to work with him and he’s nearly legendary among the staff.

By all accounts he’s a good guy and a good social studies teacher. His end-of-the-year finals were known to be brutal and take the entire 90-minute class to complete. Basically, the setup was that in a 90-minute finals period, he had the students sit down and write 3x five-paragraph essays from a selection of history topics.

From what I understand, these essays were handwritten with only one page of notes allowed to each student. The idea was to have students create a series of products under the pressure of a time limit. Thus, for years students put pencil to paper and scribbled on about the vast eras and upheavals of history. Once the bell rang, Mr. Marcus dismissed the class and collected all of the diligently written essays.

Other teachers asked him, “You really want to grade ALL of those essays?”

His reply was, “I didn’t grade a single one. I threw them all right in the recycling bin.”

Photo by Alex Fu on
Where final grades go to die. They’re in there somewhere. Start looking!


In reality, the final essays weren’t worth anything and counted zero towards the students’ final grade. How can this be, you ask? Well, it’s because Mr. Marcus based their grades on other factors, just not the final exam essays. He had already entered their final grades into the system. The final exam essays were just his way of giving the students busy work.

Mr. Marcus’ rationale was that “You gotta give them something to keep them occupied on finals day. I don’t want them on their phones or goofing off, so I just hand them a very difficult and time-consuming assignment.”

I guess he sort of counted on the fact that nobody read (or remembered) the syllabus, and therefore, they didn’t realize that the weight of the final exam wasn’t listed on it. Hence, it wasn’t actually worth anything.


It’s very clever to be sure, but I’m not sure that would fly with school administration in this day and age. Then again, teachers and departments have a fair amount of leeway in how they go about what gets assigned and what gets graded. Maybe a teacher could still justify and get away with it, but I’m not sure I’d try. Maybe in 40 or 50 years when I’m about to retire.

Lessons Learned or Unlearned

So what’s it worth if it contributes nothing to your final grade?

True, Mr. Marcus’ zero point finals probably put the students under a good amount of stress for what ultimately amounted to nothing, but I think there’s a deeper lesson to be learned here. That lesson is: such is life or c’est la vie. You’ll often work your butt off and jump through hoops at your job with nothing so much as an acknowledgement of your hard work. One lesson I think that’s important to teach kids is learning to do things without any expectation of reward or recognition. You’ll work your fingers to the bone only to come back tomorrow and do it all over again.

Nobody is going to hold your hand or tell you what needs to be done, you gotta learn on your own and figure those things out before you start costing people money and time. If you’re in a job where people’s lives depend on you, then you better remember your training and do it right the first time, or you’re going to get people killed. That’s why training, practice, drilling, busy work, etc. is so important. What you take away from these exercises in busy work and repetition is really up to you. In reality, exceptional individual talent is rare. It’s hard work and dedicated practice that builds results.

I’ve learned that being a nice teacher and being a good teacher are not necessarily the same thing. Sometimes they align and sometimes they don’t. I want to keep my high standards. The real lessons in my classroom come from the results of your efforts rather than the grades I give you. Learning can be a difficult process, but with struggle comes knowledge. You remember more of what you do than of what you hear. I can tell you the stove is hot, but you’ll definitely be hesitant to touch it again once you burn yourself.

As they say:

Do the right thing even when nobody’s looking.


Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

That results in you being a decent person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s