Preparing for Final Exams…Wait, What?

end of semesterI am still learning how things work in England. Prime example: a couple of months back, I referred to the place where one purchases delicious, delicious beer-battered cod and fries as a “fish and chippery” before a kind(?) soul on Twitter alerted me to the fact that it’s called a “chippy,” here. So perhaps it’s understandable that I still find it a little weird that my students are about to take their final exams.

I’d also like to claim a pass on any end-of-the-semester whimsy that crops into this post. I’m allowed, because I just came back from break and it’s still the end of the semester.

I am also, apparently, claiming a pass on transition sentences today.

The end of the semester is a drawn-out affair. For one of the classes I’m teaching, students turned in their final papers in December; another group of older students submits their essays a few days from now. Both of these groups will sit their exams in the coming weeks. Now, I’m not suggesting that this schedule is the absolute norm in England, and I’ve also heard of some U.S. institutions that hold exams after the holidays.

What I’d like to do though is to take some time to try to delineate the pros and cons of asking students to take exams in January, rather than December, in an effort to think more carefully about forms of evaluation and assessment.

On the plus side, first-year students taking exams in January might be less stressed because they’re presumably not trying to write papers and study for a test at the same time. They’ll have hypothetically enjoyed more time to study, because we ended classes on December 13th, and this week is just for exam review. Even with time off for family and friends during the break, that leaves a couple of days on either side of the break for some quality time reviewing key themes and ideas.

On my end, separating the essay from the exam has forced me to think about final essay and exam questions that complement but do not overlap overmuch with each other. This schedule also staggers my grading (ahem, “marking”), which probably makes me a little stir crazy when faced by the never-ending pile. This trickle, however, probably also makes me a slower, and thus fairer, grader.

On the negative side, students get stressed for myriad reasons, and some might not appreciate having extra time to freak out about an exam. Others might not take any of the extra time to study. Others who do sit down for a review session might discover they’ve forgotten more than they thought they would.

I’ve tried to combat these downsides to January exams in a few ways. I always started class each week by reviewing what we’d covered during the previous week, implicitly trying to get students to do the same. Hopefully, they retained some of that overarching narrative during the holiday. Now that we’re back from the December break, I’ve planned a review session for this week. I’ve assigned “homework” in the form of a collaborative Google Doc that asks students to think of and add in key terms before we meet so that they’ve cleared the cobwebs from their brains ahead of time. I’ve also made it clear that editing the Doc is a mandatory requirement for students who would like to come to the review meeting—which I’ll run in a way that’s similar to this one.

It’s worth saying that I have no control over the date of the exam, the due dates of students’ papers, or students’ abilities to turn things in late or ask to take the exam on a different day as a result of extenuating circumstances. Our Student Office handles these matters, and I don’t know whether it’s their good work or simply the different system, but I’ll say this: the grandparent survival rate for my class was one hundred percent, and I haven’t had a single student contest a grade. I have had students come in to discuss their marks, but they’ve come to office hours with the explicit intention of wanting to learn how to improve in the future.

This difference is mind-boggling to me. It might have something to do with the fact that their assignments are double-marked, meaning that they know that I don’t have a final say about the marks that they’ve earned. But right now I am feeling as though this delay, combined with a different approach to grades, makes for a slightly-less-stressed, if still-slightly-wonky, end-of-semester.

5 comments on “Preparing for Final Exams…Wait, What?

  1. As an attendee of one of the American colleges that used to design its schedule this way, I have strong feelings on the matter: it’s terrible from a student perspective.

    For me, Christmas vacation was anything but, since we only had sometimes 10 days or so before returning to papers, exam prep, and even the occasional class! It made January brutal; because we had the time, our reading period was 10 days long, followed by 8 days of exams. And then just a long weekend (5-6 days) before the start of the spring semester. Everyone, faculty and students alike, started the new semester, in other words, exhausted.

    In one extreme case my senior year, because of the way the calendar worked (early end date, late exam date) I had one class where the final exam was six weeks after the last class. There’s just no way to fairly evaluate what someone has learned over the course of a semester (the way the American system works, at least) when you have that much time without any contact with the course.

    Now, I realize the British system is a bit different, and that you may have more time before you start your next term. But yeesh.

  2. Ken Owen says:

    I take almost entirely the opposite view from Joe – though, given that my university made us take final exams almost two years after we had covered some material (and at least 6 months since we had any course contact), maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

    Why do I think it’s such a good idea? The American semester feels such a race. You’re constantly bombarded with new information in several courses at once, and there’s no time for deeper learning or consolidation of the principles that you’ve been introduced to. There’s no time to sit and reflect on what you’ve actually covered, or to think of some of the deeper ways in which week-by-week topics link to each other. Much less is there the opportunity for any sort of wider reading outside of the course material.

    Will all students think of a break that way? No. But I think there is real value in being forced to come back to revisit material a second time. And those who make the most of the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve studied will find their consideration of the material enhanced. I found that in the UK system, students who might have struggled with concepts during the course had mastered them over the vacation in a way they’d never have been able to with the pile-up of deadlines of the US system.

    • I don’t think I disagree with the concept, Ken, so much as the American execution (and surely you would agree that the Brits do it better?). That is, even when I had those six weeks, there were countless other things going on that made the long reading and exam periods still feel like a race. You didn’t just have an exam for a course, you had a paper. You didn’t just have a paper, some classes (mostly languages) continued to meet. And very few in the university pitched the time explicitly as available for deeper study. (Or at least that’s what I recall.)

      In other words, if it was pitched as, take a holiday, come back and revisit this material when you have time to work through it again, it might work.

      But I’d still want more than 5 days before the next semester started.

    • I think I am mostly of a mind with you, Ken. The only point where I’m not sure the two systems are that different is with respect to the pile-up of deadlines. Many of my students who had essays due on a certain day for my class also had essays due for another class, because that was the first-year deadline for essays in all classes.

      I will have to think more deeply the next time I teach this module about encouraging students to think about connections during the semester–not only during this “revisiting” period.

  3. Brian Bixby says:

    I had January exams as an undergraduate, but have only had December exams to give and grade while a grad student and afterwards. The biggest difference between the two seems to me to be less pedagogical, and more student behavior. Many students want to get away early for the holidays in December, hence the high death rates among their grandparents, while everyone hated January exams, but took them on schedule.

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