Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Final Exams

An alert reader sent me this link to a Boston Globe story about Harvard eliminating its final exam period.

We’ve had similar discussions here, though the reasons aren’t all the same. I’d love to hear from wise and worldly readers who have lived through a similar transition, and who know from experience what the concrete issues are.

Like most colleges on a traditional calendar, we devote the last several days of the semester to a final exam period. Exams are scheduled in two-hour blocs. The blocs don’t always coincide with class times, since class times are usually either fifty or seventy-five minutes. There’s a makeup day at the end, which comes in handy for schedule conflicts and/or snow days. Grades are due shortly after the end of the exam period, with a hard goal of finishing everything before Christmas.

The system works pretty well for courses that lend themselves to traditional exams that can be graded quickly. But it’s awkward, at best, for courses that tend to put more weight on papers, projects, or performances.

Over the years, even some of the folks who give something like traditional final exams have started creeping those forward into the final week of classes. Although the official college policy states that exam week is for finals, we’ve had students complain truthfully that they’ve had multiple finals on the same day, in the week before any are supposed to be given. Of course, others simply have final papers or projects due, usually the week before finals.

From a workload standpoint, this is sticky.

In a collective bargaining environment like this one, everyone in the same unit is supposed to have the same rules. That means that the semester is supposed to start at the same time, and end at the same time.

Some of the people who have moved their exams up have done so out of a sense that their colleagues had a longer vacation than they did. Indeed, if you walk the faculty office corridors during exam week -- I’ve been known to do that -- they’re a lot more vacant than the official exam schedule would lead you to believe. We’ve backed into a situation in which the official norm has become the de facto exception, and students are often caught in between. Frankly, it’s also a grievance waiting to happen.

In addition to the educationally-based ideas outlined in the Globe piece, we’re considering just dropping final exam week and extending classes to the end to address workload equity. If some people can start their vacations earlier simply by declaring that they use project exams, then we have a pretty basic fairness issue. But if classes meet to the end, they meet to the end. People who want to give traditional finals still can; they just have to break them into two parts.

This move would also greatly reduce the number of schedule conflicts, since nobody’s schedule would change for that week. Adjuncts who work at multiple campuses wouldn’t suddenly have to juggle when their obligations shift; they wouldn’t shift.

I’ve heard from a few areas -- music, notably -- that such a change would be a challenge for the final juried performances, but it seems clear that we can work around that with a little ingenuity. It would also make common finals across multiple sections more challenging; presumably, the students who have math on Tuesday could find out from the students who had it on Monday what the questions were. But this, too, seems fixable with a little ingenuity. It’s already standard practice to mix up questions on different versions of the same exam, and/or to change the numbers in a given equation. It can be done.

Wise and worldly readers, it can’t be as simple as this. (Nothing ever is!) Do you see a serious downside to doing away with a final exam period? If you’ve lived through a transition like this, did you see some unanticipated-but-serious issues arise?