What Time Is It? It’s Exam Time! Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Blue Books!

December 15, 2010, 8:29 pm

Cowabunga, Buffalo Bob!

Truth be told, I am actually writing this post while proctoring my exam.  You would think a Tenured Radical like myself wouldn’t even believe in exams, wouldn’t you?

Wrong.  True, I think this generation of students comes to college so stressed-out, and so tested-out, that in many ways it is an act of mercy not to plan any kind of evaluation that awakens their anxieties (see this article for the use of therapy dogs during exam period at Tufts University.)  In fact, here at Zenith, students have been heard to complain that quizzes (particularly of the “Pop!” variety) and exams are “like high school” and unworthy of college-level scholars.  The desire to administer such forms of evaluation, it is implied, reveals the professor hirself as not quite cool for school. (“Like, man, if you really knew me, you would know what grade to give me!”)

And yet I give exams, and here are the reasons why:

  • Taking exams is a skill.  For the vast majority of professional careers, in graduate school, and for a variety of other occupations, these very same students will be asked to take exams.  Oh sure, some of them will be self-administered, but most of them will be taken in a large impersonal room, written by hand, and timed.  Any career — from soldier, to lawyer, to electrician, to police officer, to medical doctor, to the State Department requires at least one exam — and sometimes numerous exams, taken throughout one’s work life.  Many careers require periodic re-certification; many others require exams for promotion.  The idea that graduating high school liberates most people, of any social class, from test-taking is a lie.
  • As long as we teach surveys, making sense of — and knowing what you think about — a period, a field of study, or an area of expertise requires time set aside for comprehensive study.  The exam, in this case, becomes a means to an end.  Let’s be honest:  even our best students prepare erratically for classes, and students of all kinds work in bursts that are in many ways governed by the many disparate courses and the work schedules to which they are responsible.  The act of studying, at its best, brings all of these pieces that have been acquired erratically (or not yet acquired at all) together in a whole, at the end of which (ideally) a student has a building block to go on to more advanced work, to research, or to simply salt away for whenever it becomes useful.
  • In the humanities and social sciences, exams allow students who are not yet sophisticated thinkers, or particularly good writers, to work hard, do well, and be proud of themselves.  At all colleges, equally intelligent students enter with different capacities and with different skill sets.  Students who work hard and want to achieve deserve some reward and encouragement for their efforts: if every assignment that they are graded on requires excellent writing skills, or the capacity to structure a complex argument, this means that under prepared students will not get credit for what they are achieving even if they are growing as intellectuals through the act of diligent study.  In other words, there will be some lag time between the acquisition of sophisticated reading skills and the capacity to reproduce and build creatively on what has been read.  This means that many students who are learning and growing will have difficulty showing that unless they are given exams geared towards revealing what they have learned.
  • Let’s tell the truth:  many faculty don’t give exams because it is a nice way to artificially shorten the semester.  A papers-only class, a series of short quizzes, a take-home or final paper due on the last day of classes — all of these tactics send certain of our colleagues home a week, or even two weeks, early.  At Zenith this is illegal, but it happens anyway.  Little things reveal it, like the student who wrote to a colleague that but for a pesky exam in that class s/he would be able to leave town slightly before the end of classes to (and I quote) “maximize boy-friend time.”  Why is this bad for students?  Well, two reasons.  One is the absence of any of the benefits stated above.  The other is that this puts heavy pressure on the final two weeks of the semester, and in fact, stresses students out more than if they had reading period and exam week to finish up in a more orderly way.

 On a final note, I attended a party the other night at which a number of colleagues and I waxed nostalgic about (wait for it) our “favorite exams, ever!”  This was, just to be clear, our favorite exam that we ever took.  Mine was an oral exam in eighteenth century French history with John Merriman, my sophomore year at Oligarch.  Feel free to contribute yours in the comments section

God it’s fun to group up nerdy.

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