Exams stand test of time

EDUCATION BEAT

College: Finals have become more student-friendly, but they remain a key part of the academic experience.

Education Beat

December 17, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BY LATER this week, most college students will be out for the holidays, somehow having survived finals, those end-of-semester exercises that torture students and pervade alumni nightmares.

A great many of us college veterans know the dream: The calculus final looms in the morning, but we haven't attended a class - or cracked a book - for weeks. We toss and turn. How will we conjure up those equations? In the dream, as we're opening the blue book, reaching desperately for some wisdom, the professor approaches, hovers like a dark cloud and remarks: "Mr. Jones, I've missed you these seven weeks. Hope you've been having fun, because the fun is over."

When I was in school, the college fostered such terror by holding the finals of several courses at the same time on the sawdust-covered floor of the university gymnasium. To discourage cheating, desks were set 3 feet apart, and seating was arranged so that no one sat next to another taking the same exam. Stone-faced proctors paced among the desks and patrolled the men's room. (It was a men's college.)

Each three-hour session began and ended with a gong. A huge clock at the front of the room ticked off the minutes, and the smart guys always seemed to be out of there, turning in three blue books before I was halfway through the first. If we were assigned two finals the same day, tough luck. We had 60 minutes to shift gears for the afternoon ordeal.

And when finals were blessedly complete, we didn't crash at home for the holidays. The academic calendar, designed by a sadist, had the school year beginning in mid-September and ending in mid-June. That meant we went home for Christmas with term papers due and finals scheduled directly ahead in early January. Then we rolled into the second semester without a pause for breath.

Things have changed in a much more student-friendly world. These days, it's usually the professors who spend the Christmas holidays with finals - grading them.

My college no longer gives mass examinations in the gym. Students take finals in familiar and comparatively comfortable classrooms. Proctors are out. The school calendar, now standard in 90 percent of American colleges, schedules finals before the Christmas break and often grants (as at the Johns Hopkins University) a one- or two-day "reading period" for preparation.

The many schools with honor codes - such as the College of Notre Dame of Maryland - don't proctor exams at all. Students are honor bound to play fair and to report those who don't.

Then there's St. John's College in Annapolis (and Santa Fe, N.M.), which does all things differently. There are no finals, and final grades are replaced by a process known as the "don rag." Near the end of each semester through junior year, students meet with their professors, known as tutors. The tutors report - speaking in the third person - on the students' progress, and students are invited to respond.

"Advice may be requested and given," says the college catalog, "difficulties may be aired, but grades are not reported." A St. John's spokeswoman says, "The first don rag can be pretty daunting, but it's a system that's stood the test of time."

Finals, too, have stood the test. They're an integral part of one generation's college experience - and of another generation's nightmares.

For some, memorization still `Wright' thing to do

Do kids in 2003 have to memorize anything? Maybe the alphabet, I learned in an unscientific survey, but most kids these days aren't required to commit even short passages to memory. Memorization is a mechanical exercise, many educators believe, that doesn't contribute to "critical thinking."

That may be true, but three things I memorized in school decades ago have never left me, despite considerable brain shrinkage. (Colleagues joked yesterday that I'll probably be able to recite them even after my short-term memory is gone.)

One is the Gettysburg Address. The second is the alphabet - backward. (I sing it, concluding with, "Now you've heard my CBAs. There are several other ways.") The third passage I committed to memory for extra credit on a significant anniversary 50 years ago this week. It's Stephen Vincent Benet's poem, "Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright." The last stanza:

And finally, at Kitty Hawk

In Nineteen-Three (let's cheer it!)

The first real airplane really flew

With Orville there to steer it!

- And kingdoms may forget their kings

And dogs forget their bites

But not till Man forgets his wings

Will men forget the Wrights.

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