Exams: is there a better way?

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Like many learning institutions, the University of Victoria has strict schedules for final exams. Students must all file into their designated rooms at the same scheduled time, presumably to avoid cheating. Exam break is a terribly hectic time. The breaking of one’s psyche is the only thing remotely in resemblance to a ‘break’ suggested by the exam period. Is this particular method of examination always necessary? Couldn’t certain exams for certain circumstances be offered on an alternative, flexible schedule?

Some instructors explicitly state what their exam’s questions will cover prior to the writing date. What is the risk of cheating when all concerned students already know what’s on the exam? In these instances, it seems wholly unnecessary to have students write in the same room, at the same time—if minimizing cheating is the primary concern. Giving students the option to write an essay portion of a given exam on a day better suited to them would help relieve the stress of an otherwise hellish exam schedule.

There is already a system currently available to students with disabilities that allows them to schedule accommodated exams. This wonderful service is offered by the Resource Centre for Students with a Disability. However, students who don’t currently qualify for accommodated exams should be given some consideration as well. Many students have difficulties taking an exam in the environment provided: sometimes it’s a gym, sometimes it’s a lecture hall, and surrounding a given student are hundreds of other students. The eerie part about the writing experience is that the room is mostly silent—except for the scribbling of pencils and turning of pages.

Not all students are comfortable writing exams this way. For some students, the number of other people surrounding them makes them so uncomfortable that they can’t think clearly. For others, they can’t think with all the silence. Some students may need accommodated exams for more pressing reasons. If a student falls ill around exam time, getting excused from an exam is typically fairly difficult. Requiring a student who is tired because they’ve been up coughing all night to take an exam that could be worth most of their grade seems unfair.

Sometimes life interferes as well. Students shouldn’t always be expected to miss important functions such as weddings or family reunions simply because a scheduled exam overlaps. We’re not saying that each student should be given an accommodated exam for everything and anything. Ideally, students would apply for an accommodated exam through their professors and academic advisor. University authority would be the final arbiter in verifying and approving the reason for the request.

There should be some way to help students who are uncomfortable taking their exams in the standard exam setting. A disability is not the only reason a student may need an accommodated exam, and ideally, the university should recognize that.

Moreover, the nature of final exams and standardized testing is problematic, at least in principle. Standardized testing for many students presents a situation where only a shallow understanding of a given topic can be conveyed. These tests demonstrate how quickly a student can write memorized information while under stress. This is not necessarily an indicator of how well one performs or of a student’s intelligence and capability. Yet standardized tests often determine the likelihood of future success for the majority of our nation’s people. From elementary school up to university, we have been tested and tested, and dragged through multiple choice questions, essay questions, and vast rooms of stressed students all writing on the exact same thing.

Standardized testing can work for some. However, students have a variety of learning styles that will be reflected even when answering similar questions. UVic’s diversity of learning styles, intellects, and sense of creative expression should be accommodated by rethinking how and when we administer exams. It’s 2013; in many cases, there’s got to be a better way.

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