I 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.