In case it wasn’t already evident by the spike in sweatshirt-wearing students and gaunt faces around campus, midterm season is upon us again. At this point, it’s traditional to offer survival tips — I’d suggest binge-watching Netflix, cleaning your suite or hopping on over to the buttery as study break ideas — but doing so raises an important question: Why must we survive midterms at all? Many courses largely rely on two exams, a midterm and a final, to determine our final grades. This system is neither an effective means of determining student performance nor conducive to long-term retention of course material.
It seems obvious that grades should serve as a metric of student performance, and indeed, in primary and secondary school, they do. In most U.S. school systems, grades are composite scores based on participation in class, test scores, homework scores and other relevant factors. In classes where these factors are weighted, test scores are normally worth a larger percentage of one’s grade.
Yale is similar but the problem is that here, we only take two or three exams — some with as few as five or six questions. That’s a pittance compared to the number you take in a typical high school class. In my AP Calculus BC class, we averaged a test a week. To make matters worse, tests are weighed far more heavily at Yale than in most secondary school classrooms. What this means is t hat we’ve got two chances, maybe three if we’re lucky, to cement our grades. More troublingly, it means that we almost disregard an entire semester’s worth of work, save for a few all-important moments.
Higher institutions like Yale pride themselves on having a holistic admissions process that contextualizes each applicant’s experiences. Why isn’t this same emphasis on breadth extended to our classrooms? It seems inaccurate to declare our college transcripts measures of our academic achievement if they only encapsulate a few tests — even if most students at Yale aren’t too shabby at test-taking.
The larger issue, however, is that the midterm-final system is a terrible way to promote learning. It’s patently absurd to suggest that Yalies are always on top of course material. I would applaud anybody who always has enough time to sleep, participate in extracurriculars, have a fulfilling social life and never procrastinate on assignments, but I’d argue that this Yalie is a creature of fiction (if you do exist, please share your secrets with the rest of us!). Yalies, excellent sheep that we are, constantly find things to do — which means that a reading here or there will inevitably fall by the wayside until it’s absolutely necessary. And that’s an interesting idea — what does “absolutely necessary” mean? I, along with many other students, only end up seriously studying when a test — for example, a large test that will determine the majority of my grade in a course — is approaching.
Obviously, cramming isn’t a particularly good way to learn, but even when we don’t cram, tests improve our retention of material. Simply skimming over notes every once in a while is all well and good, but a body of scientific literature suggests that a “testing effect” exists. A 2006 study by Washington University, St. Louis researchers Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke supports the idea that students who are tested often retain information for much longer than students who merely study often. This makes sense; tests give us yet another way to form associations between topics. Plus, it’s much harder to complete the nebulous task of “learning” than it is to accomplish the concrete goal of studying a defined set of material for an exam. In essence, repeated testing not only forces us to engage with material more often, but also serves as a means of learning in and of itself.
If the goal of higher education is to foster an environment of learning, we need to overhaul the structure of the typical college class. Either instead of, or in addition to, midterms and finals, we should have fewer comprehensive and more periodic exams — exams that provide students with an incentive to really engage with material on a week-to-week basis. With discussion sections available for so many classes, it seems like it’d be simple to administer these types of tests, even for large lectures. Of course, for now, midterm season is what it is, so you can find me in Bass printing out the readings we were assigned during shopping period.
Shreyas Tirumala is a freshman in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.