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?