Lipka: Fewer tests, more learning

Midterms and finals inspire some of the most depressing nights at Yale. Libraries are filled to the brim with panicking students, incredibly high levels of stress and the occasional naked Pundit. Poring over lists of key terms to memorize and summarizing primary sources to ensure maximum detail recollection during tests are characteristic of many of the study habits of the students who overflow Bass. Apparently, the girl in “That’s why I chose Yale” was lying when she sang, “I was tired of memorizing figures and facts just to pass another test.”

Tests in the humanities are not an effective measure of comprehension. The same arguments that were made about the SAT and multiple-choice tests in high school are just as relevant to tests at Yale. Tests are circumstantial. An hour and 20 minutes on one day during midterms week can be a gift to the last-minute crammer in four seminars and one lecture, or the kiss of death to the diligent studier with four tests four days in a row. Regurgitation of dates and terminology for IDs aren’t an accurate measure of proficiency in a subject, much less a true test of whether any actual knowledge was gleaned from the course.

Don’t get me wrong — I think tests in QR and science classes are warranted and necessary. Comprehension of theory and ability to complete math problems can be accurately measured by a timed exam. The skills necessary to be successful in these areas are testable in the environment that Yale facilitates. The humanities, on the other hand, are not testable via traditional methods. This is because the humanities, at a higher level, are understood through individual analysis and interpretation — not applying skills or knowledge learned in a class through a series of equations or formulas.

I propose that, instead of tests, examination requirements for the humanities be filled with papers or take-home tests much like those offered in political science courses (following the lead of giant courses such as “Constitutional Law,” or “Moral Foundations of Politics”). Papers not only allow students to perform real analysis and display their knowledge and understanding of the course material, but they serve the added (and much needed) service of improving writing. Ideas are no good unless one can properly and clearly articulate them. And considering the humanities’ false reputation for impracticality, writing is the one undeniably practical and universally valued skill the humanities can hone.

While some may prefer to take tests so that they only have to invest a minimal amount of time, the whole Yale population would benefit from eliminating midterms and finals in favor of papers for humanities courses. Granted, it takes more time to grade a well-written essay when professors aren’t looking for buzzwords, regurgitated dates or the mention of a primary source, but the student body’s comprehension level should not suffer due to a desire to do less work. After all, the TAs are doing all the grading, anyway.

Ultimately, getting rid of tests, if nothing else, would reduce students’ stress during finals and midterms periods. In an environment as pressured as Yale’s, any opportunity to spread out our work is welcome. While there certainly isn’t a guarantee that stress will be reduced dramatically, it is hard to believe that with no more lists of terms to frantically cram and timelines to memorize we won’t experience any deflation in anxiety.

When it comes down to what we get out of a class, we don’t remember what we wrote in that last hour and 20 minutes before we went on break — we remember what we wrote our papers on. While smaller class sizes and fewer meeting times are part of the allure of the seminar, a final paper instead of a test is equally as tantalizing. A focus on paper-writing would increase course material retention, making big lecture courses worthwhile as more than just prerequisites. Eliminating tests is essential to improving the examination standards at Yale. In doing so, we’ll live up to our admissions video in at least one respect.

Carolyn Lipka is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.


  • jlinshi


  • The Anti-Yale

    I agree wholeheartedly!

  • elijah

    i think your argument is fair, but I think you’re overstating the problem. First of all, different classes act differently — there will be very few English classes with anything resembling a test, and those that do tend not to have one that is particularly heavily weighted. History classes also tend to have essays, but even then just “articulating ideas” is not enough if you don’t have a firm grip on the facts. Humanities classes aren’t writing classes — while it’s true that writing and articulation of ideas is a vital skill in the Humanities, it is not the ultimate goal, and classes that need to test and reinforce knowledge of facts (and this is fairly often the case) are fully justified in assigning exams.

    Essentially, you need knowledge first, and I think you will find, Ms. Lipka, that as you move higher in the levels of humanities classes you take, move through the ranks of Yale College and achieve a class status that permits you to take multiple upper-level seminars, that tests will soon become a thing of the past.
    I completely agree about stress, by the way — if there’s anything that will help Yalies chill out and realize that it’s not all the end of the world, I support it. But it’s unfair to say that humanities classes should never test, because essays and exams serve different, and important, purposes.

  • wtf

    Maybe we should listen to this freshman and make humanities classes even easier! sounds great!

    except if you’re a science major.

    shut up freshman.