For several years running, professor Mary Lui, head of Timothy Dwight College, has offered her Asian-American history class a take-home exam instead of a timed final.
According to Lui, a timed exam is not the best measure of how students have understood material. Lui is not alone in her pedagogical beliefs — many professors eschew the timed final. Although Yale College allows take-home examinations during finals period, they are generally not recommended, and the majority of final examinations are timed.
According to University policy, the chief concern with take-home exams is that they take up more of a student’s time during reading period, and so the standard policy in Yale’s Handbook for Instructors is that a regular timed exam should be assigned if appropriate to the class’s purpose. And many students interviewed said they prefer take-home finals, which give them greater freedom to set their own schedules and are less stressful than sit-down exams.
Still, Lui believes that timed finals privilege the students in her class who perform better under a narrow time limit, and that some students might need more time. She noted that take-home exams allow students to “show off knowledge of material” in a more interesting and creative way.
Spencer Rogers ’17, who previously took a take-home final for his “Dynamical Systems in Biology” course, said that sit-down exams are not the best way to evaluate proficiency, adding that the purpose of the University is not to “manufacture efficient students.”
He Li ’17 also agreed that timed exams did not accurately represent student abilities, and that take-home exams were “less stress-inducing.”
“You don’t race against the clock later in life or in your later academic environments,” Li said. “It’s about who can write the best paper, period. Not about who can write the fastest.”
But not all students completely prefer take-home exams. Adam Fine ’19 echoed the time concerns, observing that “less total time” was available to him whenever he was assigned a take-home final, although he acknowledged that “both have their advantages.”
“It’s like writing an essay versus having a final,” he said.
However, the institutional bias against take-home exams has a longstanding history. In November 2012, then-Yale College Dean Mary Miller ’81 sent a facultywide email advising Yale’s faculty against assigning take-home exams. “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,” Miller wrote. She also encouraged professors to “think about the zero sum of student time.”
Lui acknowledged these time concerns, pointing out that the final exam period is a “finite amount of time,” and thus, in grading take-home exams, she was “not expecting external research”.
Cheating is the other major concern for professors considering assigning a take-home exam. Lui said that for certain science classes, take-home exams might be disadvantageous because it would be too easy to cheat on them, and also hard to detect any cheating. She also suggested that take-home exams relied on a degree of trust between students and faculty to observe the rules of the exam. Yale policy encourages professors to be extremely clear about whether collaboration on a take-home exam is permitted, and whether the take-home exam is to be closed-book.
Rogers said he believes that students should be trusted to act in an honorable manner. While he noted cheating is always a possibility, it is important “that the University trusts students to be academically responsible.” He went on to point out that take-home exams are often taken over a several-day period, allowing students to manage their time during reading period.
At least one professor — English professor David Kastan — has bowed to the trend against take-home exams by no longer offering take-home finals.
The last day of fall semester classes and the beginning of reading period is Friday, Dec. 9.