In 2013, Jackson McHenry ’15 wrote a column titled “In Defense of Midterms.” McHenry’s piece defends the use of “midterms” as an excuse for anything: “No, Mom, the magic word isn’t ‘sorry’ or ‘please’ — it’s ‘midterms.’” Nine and a half years later, I’d like to address the word that many of us associate with academic suffering.
I get McHenry’s point. The piece lists wearing sweats in public and dipping pretzels into week-old icing at 3 a.m. as examples of “behavior excusable by midterms.” I’ve done both, although I mostly use midterms to turn other things down and sit in my egg chair and stare into space. The fact that students at Yale — and elsewhere — take their first “midterms” at the end of September and are still taking them the week before finals makes “I have midterms” a very ideal and evergreen excuse for a socially flaky person like me.
But my totally-not-contrived logic justifying the expanse of midterm season has so many haters, and I might just be one of them. Here are the facts: the actual midpoint of the fall semester at Yale College this year is Oct. 28. Many classes have “midterms” that fall far from that date, though. Do I think those non-midterm “midterms” should just be called tests? Exams? Maybe.
We all complain about how midterms hurt us. They stress us out. They make us cry. We lose sleep over them. We wish we’d never met them. Think of the weight the word “midterm” carries. When I was a prospective student touring campus during midterm season, otherwise known as the entire fall semester, I watched Yale students cower under the weight of those exams and thought, “Wow, that’s a big, important test.” So much power, and for what? Kinda cool though…
And don’t those midterms know it, those big-headed monstrosities. Midterms have existed in various forms for a long time. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which shows how often a phrase occurs in books over time, indicates that the phrase “midterm exam” first appeared in the 1930s and peaked in the late 1990s. Yale’s library archives have copies of midterm exams from as early as the 1940s.
Throughout the decades, though, the use of the “midterm” label has varied, especially for classes that began to have multiple midterm exams, likely an attempt towards more frequent academic feedback and lower-stakes testing. One such class, CHEM 161, “General Chemistry I,” is known for having three midterms that span almost the entire semester. But as recently as fall 2018 — my first semester at Yale — tests for that class were called “Hour Test I,” “Hour Test II” and “Hour Test III.” Foreign language classes still call their thrice-a-semester tests “tests.”
The use of “midterm” as a replacement for “general test” isn’t that long-standing of a tradition — and there are exceptions. We can take it down, because midterms have fragile egos. And we all know that it’s toxic to protect those.
How a student perceives the importance of a test can influence how they perform. But different students often have adverse relationships to testing, especially when they perceive tests as more high-stakes than they actually are. In fact, stressful, high-stakes testing is both inequitable and drives inequity along lines of race and socioeconomic status — especially in STEM fields, where most midterms are concentrated.
And sure, we can look at these exams as simply “mid,” in the sense that it’s a broad descriptor — nothing more than a test between the beginning and the end of the term. When you’re already shaking from midterm-induced nightmares, though, it’s pretty hard to convince yourself that “it’s just a test.” So, on that front, rename those tests that you dare to call midterms, please. As for those classes with one big test in mid-to-late October, though, catch me studying for those midterms next week.
At the end of the day, whether big or small, early or late, or as Joel Sircus ’14 wrote in a 2010 piece for the Yale Daily News, a test isn’t a big deal when you zoom out and look at the big picture.
It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test. It’s just a test.