Friday, December 17, 2010


Premature Examination

Students say the darndest things. Just this week, before the official start of the final exam period, I overheard a cluster of students complaining about all the final exams they had already taken. One was especially miffed at having three exams on the same day.

And I thought, hmm.

They didn’t seem to be posturing for my benefit. I’ve entered middle-aged invisibility. At this point, if I’m not wearing antlers, I walk unseen. The reactions of the other students, and their quick commiseration and offerings of stories of their own, seemed credible. I’m pretty sure I was hearing something at least mostly true.

Like many colleges, mine ends the semester with an official final exam week. The idea is to allow professors to give exams longer than a single class period. (It also facilitates “common” finals in departments that choose to give them.) It also gives students a chance to focus on finals without also having to worry about other assignments. Tonier colleges build in a “reading period,” or what we call a “weekend.” But the idea is to give students a chance to synthesize (or, less charitably, cram) without having to deal with having classes at the same time.

Some courses don’t use final exams, and that’s fine. Depending on content, a final paper or portfolio or performance might make more sense. There too, though, the idea behind the final exam week is to give the students the benefit of the full semester.

Which is why I get a little annoyed every year around this time when I discover anew that substantial numbers of professors are simply moving their finals up a week and going on vacation early. Based on my accidental eavesdropping, as well as personal observation every year, the empty hallways during exam week aren’t entirely a function of term papers.

It’s annoying on several levels.

At one level is basic workload equity. The faculty all adhere to the same union contract and the same academic calendar. For some to simply shave off a week while others work until the bitter end seems unfair. But the level of surveillance that would be required to suss out who had legitimate alternatives and who was just shirking would be both culturally and personally offensive.

Fairness to students complicates the picture. The students are supposed to get a full semester of instruction, followed by a week of evaluation. They’re getting less than they were promised. Worse, they’re often compelled to take more exams in a single day than would have been the case if the rules had been followed. I’m willing to guess that by the time you get to your third final of the day, you probably aren’t performing at your best.

I don’t want to be the exam police. But at the same time, it’s hard not to notice that the rules are being abused on a regular, and even predictable, basis.

Since mine is a commuter college, this isn’t mostly about flying back to wherever. Nor is it a principled exercise in defiance, since nobody owns up to it in public. It’s just cheating, hiding behind the folks who actually do use final projects.


In the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively small. But as someone charged with establishing and maintaining fair treatment for employees, it’s annoying.

A few months ago, I floated the idea of just cancelling the final exam period altogether, and having classes run right up to the bitter end. That way, we could ensure equality across the board, and nobody would have to guess at anybody else’s motives. But the conscientious folk who actually do common, two-hour final exams objected. From their perspective, I was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. And while nobody offered a principled defense of shirking, I did notice an odd silence from certain corners...

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to deal with premature examination?

At my school, there's a policy in place that is well-known to faculty and students that no exams can be scheduled during the last week of classes. That forces everyone to hold their exams or paper/portfolio due dates during finals week. (I do have one colleague that regularly violates this, but he typically is giving his 4th exam of the semester during that last week of class and still giving a cumulative final during exam week.)

I must say I don't know what the penalty is for violating this policy, but the Dean always sends a strongly worded reminder email at the beginning and near the end of the semester.
Psych-prof: my place too. Also unevenly enforced. I regularly give a "last quiz" that is optional and that will replace a low quiz grade for students who choose to take it; somebody moaned that it violated that rule once, but my dean did nothing with it. But I'm one of those few who absolutely has to have that three-hour exam period, anyway.

My personal favorite commentary on this issue is the comment of Dr. Umlaut, of Kevin Pease's old Trenton State comic Absurd Notions:

Pease's commentary on the strip (see is "A lot of teachers did this. It tended to leave the latter half of "finals week" open for moving out, but it also meant much less time to study for many students." It kind of implies that this has been a problem for a while.
Same thing here except we're unionized, so it's in the contract. This doesn't stop folks from violating the policy, but when it's in the contract, that makes it a lot easier to punish known violators
I can't know the motivations of the professors in question, but for some I'm sure the reason for scheduling shorter, in-class exams for the students is to try to help spread out the students' exams a little, or else help the students to go home earlier. Which is why I feel as though if you were to appeal to the professors at your school it might have a positive effect.

During exam week at my undergraduate institution (and probably at yours) having three exams scheduled in a single day was viewed as a legitimate "exam conflict" and warranted allowing a student to move one of those exams to another day during exam week. I don't think most professors would want their students to be writing three exams in a single day, but as you said, you can't police that if it's done in-class in the week before. Perhaps if you explain this to the professors they might change their ways. Certainly there are the occasional profs who do it in order to take their own time off sooner, and it's probably not going to help with them, but if there's one thing most profs seem to have in common it's their interest in the students' education. A pleasantly-worded global appeal based on your experience with the student who had three in a day might go a lot further than you'd think.
I don't understand why dd thinks it would be "culturally and personally offensive" to beat up on faculty who do what he describes. DD wants a system where permanent faculty do not have tenure, are a little less cocky and bumptious, a little more amenable to ordinary job discipline.

Okay, but here is a situation where administration needs to protect its students and its conscientious faculty from the rogues, and DD says his hands are tied! Letters of reprimand? Jawboning? Angry confrontations in the hall? A complaint to the campus Labor-Management Committee?

It's not just those jerks taking an extra few days of vacation who are not earning their pay, dd. Sometimes you do not catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and sometimes you have to spend your hard-saved capital.

I bitched to our former academic dean years ago about just this phenomenon. He said, as you do, "What can I do?"

That's a cop-out for people who are averse to confrontation. This is your chance to smite the heathen, dd, because you've got them nailed fair and square. And you're asking us what to do?
In my state, this would violate the regulations that govern the community colleges. According to the regs, a semester is 15 weeks (10 for a quarter) and registration, orientation and final exams are mandated to be in addition to the 15 weeks of instructional time. You can always try using the state is making us do this, its out of our hands excuse in cracking down on this.
At my CC we're required to meet in final exam week and do something academic during the period (give an exam, or at least a lecture) or else, we're routinely warned, the state won't count the class for 16 weeks credit and students can't transfer it and we could lose accreditation and all sorts of horrible things.

The way it is enforced is, adjuncts have to stick around the last week and give exams. Everyone else leaves. Including many administrators, including the one responsible for deciding on snow days, leaving us in a blizzard earlier in the week on a final exam day when the county had ordered everyone off the roads but our finals STILL HADN'T BEEN CANCELED. Finally some deans called profs and unofficially canceled them. The administration promised to schedule make-up exams right away. It's been a week, finals are over, no make-ups scheduled. Doesn't matter for the full-timers, none of them stick around for exams anyway. But the adjuncts are left scrambling by the exam requirement and then the half-assed cancellation with no rescheduling.

Adjuncts are reprimanded or even released (I suppose it's not firing when you're hired on a semesterly basis) if they don't stick around for exams. For full-timers, it doesn't matter.

The other inequity that chaps my hide is that adjuncts MUST hold class for the entire period, come hell or high water. There are full-timers who teach the same 3-hour-class, one-a-week time as I do, who are routinely gone after the first hour. Whereas adjuncts get reprimanded for letting students out five minutes early or even, in one case, for scheduling the break in a 3-hour class to be after an hour instead of after an hour-and-fifteen. That warranted a department-wide e-mail about how adjuncts needed to comply with the official break-taking times in long classes "for the good of the students" who otherwise get too tired to learn effectively. (Which I'm pretty sure means "need smoke breaks to keep the rage controlled.")
As others here, we (SUNY Albany) have a 'no exams in final two weeks of class' policy. I would bet that it'd be enforced as needed, but haven't heard of any cases where there's an issue.

And I am proctoring my final exam as I type this :); 8 a.m. on the last day of finals week is not a good time to evaluate optimal performance, I suspect..
At my university, final exam times are set by the Registrar's Office and can be anywhere from Saturday to the following Friday. The problem is that final grades MUST be uploaded no later than noon on the Monday following exams. If you teach a course with more than 100 students and get stuck with a last-day-of-exam-week time, you have less than 72 hours to grade the exams (around 10 pages of calculations and essay questions, in my case), calculate the final grades and get them entered. I've been this situation, and I followed the rules, but I certainly could understand why someone put into this situation would look for a different solution.
I've taught in four institutions and every single one had a policy: No exams the final week of class. A couple of them also allowed students to reschedule if they had more than two exams or final papers in a single day--the prof was required to accommodate.
My school followed the no-more-than-two-finals a day rule. If that is the official policy, you could make a generic form for students to request their third exam be moved. Based on the requests to move tests around, you might be able to get a better feel for who is moving scheduled exams (violating the union contract) and take it up with the union rep. Let them police internally.
Our contract includes language that specifies faculty work obligations during finals week. Those obligations are the same as any other week. Office hours. If a final is not given, that time should still be used for class. This is often some sort of "culminating experience" or perhaps a party.
At my place we did away with finals week to move to a "compressed calendar" some years ago. Finals are held during the last week of classes--there was some grumbling, but everyone's adjusted/resigned by this point. I'm sure there are a fair share of instructors who simply hand back papers and dismiss class that last day, but as long as they make themselves availble to students during the rest of the class time there's not too much worry about it. If someone simply isn't there? They better have called in sick or taken a personal day. Otherwise it's just like failing to call in an absence on any other class day and the contract provides pretty clear consequences.
Our college policy explicitly lists classes that either (a) do not meet during final exam week - mostly project based classes like studio art - or (b) have a final exam during the last week of class - mostly lab classes. Freshman composition is singled out as having its final exam during the last week of class. Policy requires that all classes meet as scheduled, whether an exam is given or not.

That said, it happens here and has happened frequently at other places I know well.

We are not a union shop, but I would expect the Dean to treat skipping a two hour class at the end of the semester the same as any other, which requires some form of leave or LWOP. I know of one instance where a professor was caught (one student didn't get the memo) and the professor was disciplined.

I am, quite frankly, shocked that you tolerate flagrant abuse of the union contract. I know if some prof brought some technicality to me, I would bring up final exam week as a counterexample. "So it is your position that we need to strictly enforce every part of the contract?"
I've taught in four institutions and every single one had a policy: No exams the final week of class. A couple of them also allowed students to reschedule if they had more than two exams or final papers in a single day--the prof was required to accommodate.

I like this policy as long as there are explicit rules about which finals get rescheduled. If you leave it up to students, all profs have to deal with rescheduling requests and therefore suffer. If there is an explicit pecking order, you can be prepared if you happen to be teaching one of the times that is likely to require makeup finals.
The school where I teach has policies both requiring professors to hold sessions during final exams as scheduled, and prohibiting major assignments or exams during the last week of "regular" classes. We also have explicit policies allowing students to reschedule if they have more than 2 finals in a day, beginning with their earliest final on that day.

For the most part, people follow these policies reasonably well. It just isn't that high on my list of stuff to worry about, as a result.

But one semester, a (former) Dean started roaming hallways during final exams and interrogating people about why they weren't where he thought they should be, or doing what he thought they should. In fact I got "the treatment" - DURING the exam time, in front of students!!! - because there were "too few" students in my classroom taking their exam! This was totally out of my control and I certainly resented it. I can hold the exam, but if they don't come then they don't come (it was a very small class to start with and really, only 1 or 2 students skipped it. Others had already finished and left, by the time the Dean showed up, though).

Since that misadventure, the mere thought of any administrator trying to enforce the rules about holding sessions during final exams week tends to raise hackles and bring out horror stories about past administrators' blunders. So I get what Dean Dad means about enforcement efforts being considered as insulting and invasive, even though it might not be intended that way.

Personally, as someone who has always played by the rules in this matter, I wouldn't mind if administrators enforced the rule - but I would like them to be smart about it, and not begin with ridiculous assumptions and accusations where none are warranted. In fact, this is not so different from the post about using student evals. Begin with reasonable assumptions, when things look strange ask questions before jumping to negative conclusions, and keep in mind that there could be all sorts of alternate (legitimate) explanations for what you think you are seeing.
I'm curious as to why everyone assumes that the instructors are derelict in their duty. Why not ask the instructors who give exams "early" why they are doing so? Some might want to leave early, but others might have sound - or at least understandable - pedagogical reasons.

Also, though I tend to take what students say (or write in their evaluations) very seriously, by this point in my career I have concluded that scuttlebutt in the hallway does not constitute sufficient evidence for anything.
When I taught, my university's policy was the following:

1. There must be a final exam.

2. It must fall during finals week.

3. You may require a final paper, but it does not count as a final exam; you cannot just require your students to turn it in on the day of the final.

I think rules #1 and #2 were intended to prevent precisely the scenario you describe in your post. But enforcing both rule #3 and rule #1 seemed unreasonable. Because my class was generally the most writing-intensive the students would have during the semester, I was certainly happy to require that my students hand in their final paper (which was the most complex assignment, required the most time and effort, and was the largest chunk of their grade) before study days began, so that they could get it out of the way and prepare for their exams in their other courses. (And, of course, the papers would take the most time to grade.)

It just didn't seem fair to me to pile more work on the students and require yet another strenuous effort in a class where assessment was better served through evaluation of the process of writing, especially since I'd stressed heavily the importance of revision and how zero drafts--the only thing that would be managed during a final--often bore so little resemblance to the final product.

So we would watch a movie and drink cider and eat cookies. It was common practice among writing instructors. Our department head, who also thought this set of rules a ridiculous catch-22, looked the other way. The students seemed to enjoy the break.
I'm with WayUpNorth on this one. DD, why are you suddenly so passive-agressive that you blog about this rather than simply feigning sympathy and find out from those students who the slacker faculty are, and take it to your friends in the Union.

"I'm curious as to why everyone assumes that the instructors are derelict in their duty."

In my case, it is because I know of one specific instance where the Prof had already left the country before the scheduled final exam time, and had not cleared the schedule change with the Dean because she knew what she wanted to do was wrong and would not be approved without taking LWOP.

"I like this policy as long as there are explicit rules about which finals get rescheduled. If you leave it up to students, all profs have to deal with rescheduling requests and therefore suffer."

At our college, all rescheduled or makeup final exams must be approved - in advance - by the Dean. It is not the job of the individual profs to figure out if a student is trying to shift many exams for whatever reason (perhaps to get an e-mail with photos of the test in it, or just to catch an early flight).
As an English professor, I require that their final ten page paper be due the last scheduled day of class. There is no final. Why? Because it can easily take a week to properly grade multiple sections of junior composition. It's not just the reading; I also have to check documentation and investigate possible plagiarism. If I make that paper due during finals week (say, on a Friday) it is impossible to get grades into the registrar by noon Monday.

I do not schedule an in-class final for Intro to Lit, either. Our last unit covers poetry. I want students to use their texts, and I want them to write it on a computer so that I can actually read their finals when they finish. On the last regularly scheduled day of class I give them their take-home final. It is due by the end of their scheduled final exam period. Students typically spend at least two hours on this final, and this method allows them to write more thoughtful essays without the distraction of listening to thirty other students flipping frantically throughout their text.

I assure you, with so much text to grade, I barely have time to finish in time for the registrar; finals is not an easy week for me or my fellow English professors. We cannot use scantrons.

I also prefer to grade papers at my home. My office is very old this time of year, and I do not want students to drop by begging for extensions or extra credit because they "worked really hard." The whining has gotten out of control in recent years. Students can still reach me by email, should a question or emergency arise. One nice aspect of technology is that work can be done from home. So if the halls are empty, do not assume that the professors have skipped town to party early. I sure haven't.

I also worked for years as an adjunct, a freeway flyer a multiple colleges. Sometimes I would have two exams at different colleges scheduled for the same time. Too many adjuncts are just trying to pay the rent. They do the best they can for far too little pay--or respect.
I recently graduated (thank you Jesus, it's over!) and I found that I loved it when a professor would allow us to take a final early! It took a HUGE load off my back. It made the actual finals week easier. At GSU, the final exam schedule is made 2 years in advance. If a student has 3 exams on the same day, they can appeal one of the exams and take it another day. In fact, I longed for the professors who allowed these early exams. They were shorter and i didn't have the stress of other exams to prevent quality studying!

And might I add, that as a past student during a recession, it was made blindingly clear to me that students are NOT put first. We're like little human batteries (similar to the Matrix) that are used to power the Overall Machine. Our battery life is about 4 or 5 years where as professors and Admin could be there for years and years. With that said, after the raised tuition, the Upper Course class cuts, the cutbacks, and so so much more, I am convinced that Colleges put the College first --not the student.

By the way, I like your blog. I read some of your other posts and I find what you have to say very interesting.
I teach at a community college where the students homes are on other continents. When the first final exam isn't until 12/20 and the last final exam is scheduled for December 23 at 4 PM, you can bet that some faculty are going to schedule them earlier. I have one student whose plane ride home to Africa is the same day (12/21) as our final.

We had our final yesterday, during reading day, to accommodate her and the others who wanted to "get it over with".

I am a rule follower, but sometimes the rules don't make logistical sense. When are folks supposed to travel if they are still finishing an exam on December 23rd at 6 PM, or even earlier in the week if they are crossing multiple time zones? I didn't take away from class time, but did schedule our exam during a "verboten" time. I can still sleep at night.
At my undergrad university, profs would often given exams both during the last week of classes and then during the scheduled exam, as well. Some profs would only give exams during the last week of school because it was just as easy to have 4 exams on a single day, depending on your schedule, because of the way they crammed exam periods in. Also, profs complained about the short time they had to grade exams and when the grades were due.

The student senate decided this was insane, so they said that, since there is no break between the end of classes and exam week, the last week of classes was to be 'dead week'. Profs have their choice between giving exams during dead week or during the final exam week, but not both. However, if you give the exam during dead week, you're supposed to have a class meeting during the final exam period, anyway. (Not that they always do, of course, but I think most of them try to be conscientious about it, even if the final exam meeting is to get together to go over the exam grade or have donuts or just talk about what students are doing in the future.
DD -- is there any way to find out who the perpetrators are more likely to be? Is it older folks, folks with small kids, adjuncts who are trying to spread out grading among multiple institutions, etc?

This is one of those situations where it seems to me that there could be some set of factors which I am not familiar with that is driving the whole business.

In a general sense, my response is that you have to pay people professional wages to expect professional service. I can't comprehend the state of mind necessary to pay an adjunct slightly above minimum wage with no benefits, then get pissy about workload management -- assuming that's where the problem lies.
Separately, blogging about a problem is not even remotely "passive-aggressive." Because that requires "aggressive." Bringing up an issue on an anonymous forum to ask for input before making decisions is more or less the opposite of pathological behavior for an administrator.

DD's mentioned that this particular issue is a pet peeve of his and he's seeking comment to make sure he doesn't do something foolish out of irritation. If anything, he should be lauded for recognizing his human limits and doing intelligent things to work with them.
I'm currently in a master's degree program in my profession, and not only do some profs move finals into the last week of class, they also skip class the week of the mid-term. Some also do a re-cap the week before each of those. So I'm paying for 100% of a term and I'm not getting two to four weeks of it. I do write that in my evaluations. Fight the good fight!
That would make more sense if the value of the Master's program were in the education more than the accreditation.
Here at my large state university, there is a strongly-worded policy that requires finals to be given during finals week, and also requires that no assignments worth more than 10% of the grade be due during the last week in class.
However, there are plenty of exceptions -- for example, you can have a large project due the last week of class, as long as you give that assignment at least 30 days in advance. So if you put it in the syllabus, you can do whatever you want to.
The only policing is by syllabus -- you have to put a final exam at the proper time in the syllabus. If you miss that, the department will get on you.
However, you can put it in the syllabus, then do something different, and no one seems to notice.
This is an ongoing problem at my institution. We have a policy that says no exam worth more than 40% of the final grade during the final week of classes. This actually worked for several years. At least if an instructor was brazen enough to schedule a final exam - but not called a final - in the last week of class, it wasn't weighted heavily enough that students' marks would seriously be downgraded if they had trouble finding time to study while finishing projects/papers in other courses.

But what is happening more and more recently is (a) instructors scheduling final exams in the second-last week of classes, thereby bypassing the policy, or (b) instructors scheduling a final on the official exam schedule and then holding the "real" final during the last two weeks of class (sometimes unannounced until more than halfway into the course). Which is extremely frustrating and unfair to the students, not to mention the faculty members who *do* abide by the policy.

I agree with the other posters that if you know of violators, at the least they should be called in for a discussion. Some deans at my institution have also informed violators who are adjuncts/sessionals that if they're caught out again, they won't be hired in future semesters.
The funny part is that the best thing that can possibly happen to an adjunct is for them to be so fired that they have to change careers.

Anyways, thanks for the amusing peek into the class war.
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