What happens in exam period stays in exam period

Following the toil of reading week, Yalies spew up a semester’s worth of knowledge onto the small, lined pages of Pontiac Paper Co. examination books — better known as blue books. Students then pack up and head out of town for winter vacation, leaving their blue books and pending grades in the hands of their teaching assistants.

But as the first official week of second-semester classes began, a slew of blue books for professor Paul Bracken’s popular lecture, “Strategy, Technology and War,” remained uncollected. 315 students were enrolled in the class last semester; and, on Monday, a stack of 253 blue books were still piled inside the Political Science Department at 8 Prospect Place. (Several teaching assistants have not even brought their students’ blue books to the office yet, the receptionist Beth Lauer said)

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Although it might seem that grade-conscious Elis would care about the fruits of their hard work, students and TAs alike said Yalies are generally indifferent to the final destination of their blue books, leaving most behind as they embark on a new semester.

But these blue books are not trashed, used as heating fuel or recycled. Rather, blue books head to a catacomb for examination material, tucked in a file cabinet of the respective professor or academic department and remain there for at least a semester before they are shredded.

Elizabeth Boyce, assistant instructor for Vincent Scully’s fall lecture course, “Introduction to the History of Art,” explained that blue books are in the care of TAs until they return for spring semester, when University grades are due on the first working day of the new year. After grades are submitted, blue books are sealed in individual manila envelopes and filed in the History of Art department.

“It’s a very careful process,” Boyce said. “It’s about the students’ privacy.”

Jed Holtzman FES ’09, one of four TAs for Sheila Olmstead’s “Microeconomics with Environmental Applications,” said he and his fellow TAs went to similar lengths to ensure the students’ work was preserved, working countless hours prior to break to grade and collate blue books according to students’ net IDs.

“It was horrific, an extremely unpleasant experience,” he said.

Holtzman also noted how he had zero requests from 18 students in his section regarding the retrieval of their exam material, and the other TAs from Econ 117 had received few requests, if any.

Six students interviewed said they saw the retrieval of blue books as a hassle once grades are already recorded.

“I never pick up my blue books,” Andrew Hakanson ’11 said. “I think it’s unnecessary unless I have a problem with my grade.”

But while few students see the blue books from their final exams, many TAs claimed they exercise just as much vigilance and fairness in grading as they would with any other exam during the semester.

Boyce said the TAs in Scully’s course, in particular, view their grading as an exercise in being an “effective teacher” by “pining over the students’ material.”

Grading does require a TA’s time and effort during the winter holiday, and the tedious process can cause some TAs to question the value of writing comments in the margins when few students care to examine their blue books.

“Two-thirds of the way through grading, I realized probably 98 percent of kids would never come pick them up and I felt like a dumbass,” Holtzman said.

Despite these frustrations, the general consensus among TAs was that the current method of grading is the most effective and secure system for ensuring academic integrity. While some schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are experimenting with computer software to replace handwritten exams, Yale’s affinity for the blue book seems to be a lasting one, though it is not without its imperfections.

“I was shocked and appalled by the handwriting of a significant fraction of the undergrad population,” Holtzman commented. “They write like 6-year-olds.”

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the blue book system could receive more attention by the Yale College Teaching & Learning Committee. She said she hopes the committee will address the question of abandoned books in the near future, although it “may not be possible to get it on their agenda this year.”

Boyce said she encourages students to retrieve their blue books from their final resting place. The department will even mail blue books to students with extenuating circumstances, like studying abroad, she said.

Though memories of last semester’s hard work may have long faded, the blue books are still alive and, well, waiting.


  • Yale '10

    Simple solution: Don't put the old final exams on Science Hill (including the Political Science "diner"). If I could pick up my tests at a location that didn't require a long extra trip, I'd be more inclined to pick it up and read it. Better yet, just send us the old tests to our PO Box - you can even charge me the extra couple dollars for postage on my tutition bill.

  • oh really

    If undergraduates write like 6 year olds, I can only say that most graduate students think and speak like neanderthals.

    Sweet "office" at Koffee Too… Morons.

  • No true

    However, I can say that the writer did nto do enough research. A large portion of faculty believes that it is against Yale Undergraduate Regulations to return final exams to students and will not do so. It would of been good journalism to a) speak with professors and b) see if this is true. As well, many TA's simply throw out exams before you can pick them up. I couldn't get mine during shoppinng period and now my TA has thrown it out.

  • TO #3

    "If undergraduates write like 6 year olds, I can only say that most graduate students think and speak like neanderthals."

    No no no……that is IF they can speak English at all (In particular, the math department comes into mind)

  • Anonymous

    Please don't speak so disrespectfully about TAs…you're making the rest of us undergrads look bad by association. Moreover, your assertion that speaking like a neanderthal is the mark of a person MORE intelligent than a person who can't speak English…xenophobic much? I'm appalled.

    Anyway, in response to the actual content of the article, I have never been told by any professor or TA that I could or should pick up my final exam. I've even had TAs mail final papers to me, but never a final exam. If they really want us to be picking up our corrected exams, they should tell us.

  • Anonymous

    Hate to be cynical, but it seems like picking up final exams would be a pointless exercise. Exams, unlike papers, are clearly just part of the institutional game. They don't encourage original thought, and whatever I retain from the studying process will be the same regardless of whether I look at my exam or not.

    I'm interested to know what my professors thought of my ideas in my term papers, but for the chains of words I cobbled together stochastically before the exam time ran out? I don't think anyone actually expects any thought worthy of commentary to be in there.

  • Jon K. ' 78 (BK)

    I am shocked that most current students at Yale do not want to retrieve their bluebooks from finals (and mid-terms, too.)

    I recently picked up years of these things from my parents' house, and spent many hours reading every word in them.

    It was interesting, entertaining, "eye-opening" (occasionally), and I think I even got to see Rick Levin's hand-written comments in an economics exam bluebook.

    Anyone who wants "ammunition" for the argument that many at elite colleges are anti-intellectual "grim pre-professionals" (as Kingman Brewster used to say to us) certainly has it with this.

    Jon K. ' 78 (BK)

  • Anonymous

    If I pay 50K / year for tuition, they better damn well speak clear, coherent English. I agree with #4.

  • Trumbul 08

    Honestly, I did TRY to get my blue books, but Yale really doesn't make the effort. I even offered one of my professors at the end of my senior year if I could leave a self addressed stamped envelope so I could get my work back and he was extremely reluctant.

    Also, keeping them all the way up science hill is a terrible idea. I would have probably picked up more had it not been so far.


    As a neanderthal, I'm very offended.

  • Yale '06

    I was one of those rare people who routinely tried to pick up my old exams, and it was normally a bit of a hassle. Profs often don't know off hand where the exams are, and it can be hard to catch a prof in his office - we don't know their schedules. Furthermore, it can be really embarrassing to ask a prof face-to-face to pull an exam on which one didn't do so well.

    The solution may well be to mail the exams, but I bet that in and of itself will create problems. Students are sure to catch perceived mistakes in the grading of their exams, yet profs will be reluctant to consider these complaints when exams have not been kept securely in their possession.