Miller discourages take-home finals

With finals around the corner, Yale College Dean Mary Miller has recommended faculty not to assign students take-home exams following this summer’s allegations that 125 Harvard students engaged in unauthorized collaboration on a take-home examination.

In a Nov. 19 end-of-term email to the faculty, Miller and Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard urged professors who use take-home final examinations to consider switching to an in-class examination. Though the University has traditionally discouraged take-home exams, Miller said, she wanted to re-emphasize other options in light of the recent events at Harvard. In-class examinations enable students to better balance their finals schedule and maintain a healthier lifestyle during the exam period because on take-home finals, students often take more time than the three hours budgeted for in-class examinations, she said.

“We try to help faculty members think about the zero sum of student time,” Miller said. “Taking a final exam or writing a paper can be a more effective [gauge] of mastery of a wide range of materials than [an] open-ended take-home exam.”

Professors can offer take-home examinations instead of regularly scheduled finals if they provide students with instructions about timing, collaboration and permitted resources, according to the Yale Faculty Handbook. But a majority of professors interviewed said they have never offered a take-home exam.

German professor Paul North said many upper-level courses in the humanities and social sciences assign final papers in place of examinations. Philip Smith, director for undergraduate studies in sociology, said he felt a “worthwhile” take-home examination would require at least three days to complete, which he thinks is too much to ask of students during finals period.

But biochemistry lecturer Kaury Kucera, who teaches a seminar for non-science majors, said she assigns open-ended take-home finals because she wants to measure students’ ability to synthesize and apply concepts instead of their ability to memorize them. Kucera said she considered switching to an in-class exam after receiving Miller’s email, but her students voted to keep the current system. She decided to shorten the length of the exam this year to avoid causing students additional stress, she added.

Economics professor Dean Karlan, who has previously used the take-home format, said he was surprised when students raised concerns about cheating last spring. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia — which has had an academic honor code since 1842 — he took many take-home exams without incident, he added.

“I found it really odd to have huge complaints about the exam being take-home when so much of a grade is determined in a take-home style in papers or projects,” Karlan said. “The students I know are filled with honor and integrity, so I didn’t really think twice about [cheating] being a problem.”

Still, Karlan said he probably will not assign a take-home exam for his spring course in the future because of negative student response and one reported instance of cheating.

Clark Ross, vice president and dean of faculty at Davidson College — which has a long-established honor code — said all of Davidson’s exams are self-scheduled or take-home. Under the honor code, Davidson trusts its students to maintain standards of academic integrity during examinations, he said, adding that faculty are still concerned that take-home examinations are too time-consuming.

Six out of eight students interviewed said they had never taken a class with a take-home exam.

Alex Ratner ’14 said he has only taken one take-home exam at Yale, but that he thinks both exam formats include positives and negatives.

“You have so much more time to complete it, so in some ways it’s more laborious,” Ratner said. “But there is also less pressure because you aren’t surrounded by more people and you don’t have only certain amount of time.”

Nikita Tsukanov ’15 said that while he has only taken examinations offered in-class, he would be open to experiencing different formats of assessment.

Final exams will last from Dec. 13 to Dec. 18.

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