Are cumulative exams really worth it? Let’s find out

Hello, dear readers. Hopefully, all of you have made it through final exams and ended the semester on a good note. Now, it is the time to relax our brain muscles, tend to our neglected bodies (finally, we have time to cook and rest), and appreciate the true winter weather that Georgia is experiencing (though that may change by the time that this post is uploaded). However, looking back on finals week–sorry to bring back any traumatic memories–you may have taken a cumulative final exam. Personally, I have not taken many cumulative final exams in college. However, this semester, Health Psychology drained me of time, energy, and flashcards with its cumulative final. Not only did I have to reread almost 400 pages of information and format questions based off of it, but I also had to reread my article summaries for key points of each article we had read, go through PowerPoints, and review my lecture notes and online quizzes. It got to the point where I considered–and still do consider–the course to be harder and more time consuming than A&P. Now, there’s been quite a bit of discussion on the subject of cumulative examinations, but in all honesty, there really isn’t a lot of research. For this post, let’s examine both sides of the argument before declaring a victor, though you’re allowed to keep your opinion of course. 

Already, I think that we can all agree that cumulative final exams are much more exhausting and tedious than exams that only test over information from a single, relatively short period of time. In fact, it’s this reason alone that pushes most of us against them–and for good reasons too. As college students, we usually take four or more classes per semester (plus labs if you’re taking sciences) and are also normally juggling a job or two plus extracurriculars like research and organizational work–all along with basic functioning like eating, sleeping, and socializing. So, throwing in a cumulative final (or worse–two or more of them) can wreak havoc on the already stressful life of a student. Think of it: going back through months of lecture notes, PowerPoints, and textbook information while also attempting to save time for your other exams. The process of preparing for a cumulative final then often becomes a strict period of cramming and altogether rushed studying. Jacob Russian, a columnist for the Daily Collegian, asserts that for the reason of time shortage and an overload of information, cumulative finals are ineffective and even detrimental to students’ learning and health ( “Final Exams Shouldn’t be Cumulative”). Overall, they seem to degrade the quality of learning through stressing the quantity of material memorized. Even a study conducted by Ryan and Nykamp on U.S. pharmacy schools admitted that the cost-benefit analysis of cumulative exams is unclear due to a deficit in research and in schools’ use of them (“Use of Cumulative Examinations at U.S. Schools of Pharmacy”). 

So then…Are there really benefits? According to other studies, cumulative exams can be advantageous to students, depending on how they are arranged. For example, a study by Kiger in 1984 (unfortunately, most articles I could dredge up were quite old), found that cumulative, or review-based, exams typically led to better performance by students (“On the Benefits of Cumulative Exams: An Experimental Study”). This study regarded total time spent studying as a major reason for better scores and tested the effects of cumulative exams through three groups of students. Kiger’s study involved a control group where the exam offered contained only material covered since the previous exam (non-cumulative), an experimental group where the exam contained new material plus questions each individual student had missed on old exams (individualized review), and an experimental group where the exam contained new material plus  random questions missed by the entire class. In the end, both experimental groups revealed better results (higher scores) than the control group. There was also little difference in the scoring between the two review groups, which means that class-based review questions on cumulative exams work as well as individual-based review questions. However, one obvious disadvantage that arose was that cumulative exams also require more effort on the professor’s part, as they must pull and alter questions from previous exams or lectures in addition to creating questions for new material. So, again, there is the issue of time. But all in all, this study was not the only one to find benefits in cumulative testing. Another study, by Khanna, Brack, and Finken in 2013, reported better information retention for students who took cumulative exams than those who took noncumualtive exams (“Short- and Long-Term Effects of Cumulative Finals on Student Learning”). Additionally, this was even the case when tested with groups of students 18 months following the course’s end, showing that the benefits can last even beyond the class itself. And this is really the main argument for cumulative exams: good scores on previous exams do not translate to retention of that information. Instead, continual review of the information better ensures encoding and retrieval of information from the long-term memory. 

So now, we have the two sides. One declares that cumulative exams are more harmful because they demand time that students simply do not have (and often count toward high percentages of a student’s total grade in the class–sometimes over 30%). The other declares them to be beneficial because they encourage better memory retention. What’s the final opinion then? Well, as with anything else, the opinion is blurred and split between each side, which means that the worth of cumulative exams truly depends on the setting. For my opinion of the matter, I think that cumulative exams can be helpful if the professor puts a lot of consideration and time into designing them. For example, while I thought that the final for my Health Psychology course was excessive and overwhelming, I do remember a lot from the class because of the amount of studying that I did. This was especially the case because three of the questions were essay questions and thus made me really use not only my memory but also my critical thinking and application abilities. However, do I think that alternatives like a project, paper, or even more regular exams (rather than a single cumulative final) would have worked just as well, if not better, for memory retention and understanding? Absolutely. 

Now, on the other hand, in A&P I, the final was also technically cumulative in that it mostly focused on new material but also included old material. But the difference between that exam and the one for Health Psychology was that the old material took the form of questions from old exams (compared to just old information in general, which, of course, is a much broader scope). This allowed me to devote more time to the new information and meant I didn’t have to spend as much time going through old material, which helped cut down on the main problem of cumulative exams requiring too much time, while still encouraging review of past information. This, I feel, is a more realistic approach to cumulative examinations, as it reduces the total amount of information a student must memorize within the short amount of time given to do so. 

Now, you know some of the pros and cons of cumulative exams in college as well as some potential alternatives to and modifications of them. Still hate them with every ounce of your being? That’s okay. No one method will perfectly fit each and every individual. However, hopefully, you now can see the benefits in not even just cumulative examinations but in simply repetition with studying. So, if information is highly relevant and important to your field, consider taking some time to go back through your notes. (I know I’ll be doing this for A&P!) Either way, enjoy your time off from exams in general, and give that overworked CNS organ of yours a break!