All midterm exams should be take-home

The pandemic has brought about huge changes in the way GW conducts academics. Not only are students exclusively online for the first time ever this semester, but the way professors teach and conduct exams has changed. These differences might be worth keeping in the long run.

Some differences this semester, like dull class conversations over Zoom, have proven challenging. But others, like take-home quizzes and exams, provide a welcome contrast with regular in-class evaluations. The added pressure of a test-taking environment is gone, and students have more time to complete their tests than they would in a 75-minute class. Even if there’s more work, the extra time given to take exams helps us fully flesh out our responses and as a result, turn in better work. Some of these open-note tests also reduce the impetus to cheat, which is a win-win for students and professors. 

Many students, myself included, dislike the tense atmosphere in a class where dozens of students hunker and write furiously until 75 minutes are up. Not only do my stress levels increase under the time constraint, but the added pressure of watching classmates turn in exams can feel stigmatizing. Being the last to turn in a test can feel embarrassing, even though it should not. When we can turn our exam in online, the pressure to perform in a scheduled time frame is removed and in turn, helps a lot of students succeed. The old test-taking methods are archaic – and they should stay that way for the future of higher education.

Giving students a few days to complete an exam worth a significant portion of their grade is more fair than expecting them to regurgitate information in a brief, in-class window. Even if the extra time means higher expectations for their work, allowing students to draw upon reference material instead of expecting them to have facts and figures memorized means that they can work at their own pace. Like a regular in-class exam, students still benefit from being familiar with the material before starting the exam. Flipping through textbooks or other source material is time consuming, so even though they may have access to it, students may simply aim to finish their work by drawing upon the lectures, readings and discussions.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Prospective doctors, for example, may not benefit from open-book exams when they’re trying to diagnose patients on the spot. But for most other majors, rote memorization does not benefit students. Although research on open- versus closed-book exams is still ongoing, at the moment there is not enough evidence to suggest one is superior to the other. One study found that students who took open-book exams performed better and retained the same amount of information in the long run. This semester, more than ever, students deserve a break, and if we end up with the same level of learning at the end of the semester, surely no harm can come of it.

Getting accustomed to taking exams over a few days instead of a few minutes may take some time, but it is worth it to do so even post-coronavirus. Now more than ever, students deserve a low-stress academic environment, and continuing some of the changes made to ensure that atmosphere will help reduce stress in the long run.

Matthew Zachary, a senior majoring in Latin American studies, is a columnist.

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