The Boston Police Department announced via Twitter that three new suspects have been placed under arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing case.
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Bloomberg Businessweek has announced its rankings of the best undergraduate business schools for 2013. Topics covered: Higher Ed policy, technology, online learning, MOOCs, for-profit news and much more. These exams are not just a rite of passage, but a fundamental and longstanding tool that American college professors have been using, in some format, since the 1830s. Across the country, there is growing evidence that final exams — once considered so important that universities named a week after them — are being abandoned or diminished, replaced by take-home tests, papers, projects, or group presentations. In the spring term at Harvard last year, only 259 of the 1,137 undergraduate courses had a scheduled final exam, the lowest number since 2002, according to Jay M. But the low rate of actual scheduled finals at Harvard last spring — just 23 percent — was considered significant enough to prompt one striking change. The change, which was first reported in Harvard Magazine, is not a statement on the value of final exams one way or the other, Harris said. Exams, in one form or another, have been a part of higher education in America since the very beginning. So began the era of the grand final exam: great, sweeping tests, often taken in huge collegiate halls or auditoriums by large numbers of students on the clock. Such views are not only increasingly shared among professors, but also backed up by a growing number of studies. Those tested weekly not only did better on the midterm and the final exams, but better overall, outperforming their classmates who did not receive regular quizzing by about 16 percent by the end of the semester. University professors around the country have tried implementing such changes in recent years, putting more emphasis on weekly or even daily quizzes, smaller tests, and papers and less emphasis on formal final exams.


According to a poll that Fleming took last spring in a large 600-student astronomy course, 93 percent of students said they’d prefer weekly quizzes over a couple of large midterms and a final. Everything about final exams is fraught with terror: the blue books passed out from the front of the room, the clock ticking on the wall, three hours to finish in some large auditorium with banked seating, and grade point averages hanging in the balance. Now comes the twist, the pop-quiz question of the day: What happens when the final exam starts vanishing from American higher education? For years, final exams in Cambridge were considered a given, and the bureaucratic rules reflected that reality.
But the shrinking role of big, blockbuster tests at Harvard and colleges elsewhere is raising serious pedagogical questions about 21st century education: How best do students learn? Students attending Harvard in the 1640s, shortly after the college was founded, were required to take both entrance and graduation exams, according to Arthur Levine’s “Handbook on Undergraduate Curriculum,” an exhaustive, 662-page history of the subject.
One such study, published last year, focused on more than 1,500 students taking algebra at Richard J.
With regular, cumulative testing, Siadat concluded, the students were simply better prepared. At the University of Arizona recently, roughly one third of professors have reduced the value of large exams in students’ overall grades, according to Thomas Fleming, a senior lecturer and associate astronomer at the university who chairs a committee overseeing general education courses. Seventy-eight percent reported actually learning more that way, and almost all of them — 98 percent — said they were less stressed taking short, weekly quizzes than they were taking large exams. In a wired world, where Internet search engines have reduced the need for memorization of facts, final exams might not be as useful as they once were, some professors suggest. Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, said he’d like to gather more information on how different forms of assessment are working. It appears there's no indication at this time that the suspects were aware of the bombing plot or helped in any way before it took place.
If professors listen closely enough, they can hear the sound of pens scribbling and caffeine pumping through the veins of 200 students who have been cramming for days, intent on learning, if for no other reason than they don’t want to fail. And now, thanks to a recent discussion at Harvard University, there are statistics that make clear just how much the landscape has changed. Harris said he’s hesitant to read too much into the numbers, which, he said, don’t include whatever final exams were scheduled in language courses, don’t reflect the other forms of assessment that have replaced exams, and don’t account for small seminar classes, which typically would not have a traditional, sit-down, blue-book final.


Courses were simply assumed to include a seated, three-hour final exam; any professor who wished to opt out had to request permission.
These “recitations,” as they were called, were despised by students, required almost no intellectual analysis, and became increasingly hard to manage as college enrollment climbed and class sizes grew. But in more recent decades, researchers have questioned whether such finals are truly the best way to help students learn. Fleming, who is part of the trend himself, said many professors have made the shift after realizing that some students simply aren’t good at taking exams.
One idea, he suggested, would be to follow up with students several months after a course has ended to see what information they have retained. The next 10 days are dedicated to reading period — a time when students are historically supposed to be preparing for final exams. But that wasn’t happening, Harris said, forcing the registrar’s office to track down professors each semester, only to learn that, no, they were not planning on a final exam. Is the disappearance of high-stakes, high-pressure final exams a sign that universities are failing to challenge today’s students, or is it just a long overdue acknowledgment that such tests aren’t always the best indicator of actual knowledge? And then there’s still another nine days set aside for students to take the finals themselves — at least for the diminishing number of students who actually have finals to take. So starting this fall, the onus has been flipped: The university will assume there will be no finals in courses. It might be stressful, even terrifying, but it has the singular power to force students to go back over material, think critically about what they have read, review hard-to-grasp-topics once more, and even talk about the subject matter with classmates and instructors — all of which enhance learning. The notion spread, and by the late 19th century, such exams had become accepted practice on many campuses, according to John R. Vali Siadat, the chairman of the math department there, compared the outcomes of algebra students who took weekly, cumulative quizzes over the course of the semester with those who received less rigorous, regular assessment.
Recent cutbacks have made it necessary, he said, for professors or their assistants to monitor their own final exams — an unwelcome task at best, and a nuisance at worst.



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